State of the Union

Obama on Surveillance-State Snooping: Not Nearly as Good as … uh, Richard Nixon?


There's a lot of bad Nixon/Obama art out there. |||

Last night, in one of the only passages that departed in any significant way from his four previous State of the Union Addresses (plus his 2009 SOTU-like speech), President Barack Obama made a curious and passing reference to drone-warfare due process and America's increasingly controversial surveillance state:

So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing. That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones—for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.

That's why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.

You can't unsee. |||

As J.D. Tuccille and Ed Krayewski have pointed out in these pages, what Obama calls "prudent limits" are basically things that exist inside in his own cranium, and therefore not particularly useful as a legal template going forward. (Do remember that the Obama team scrambled to think about creating drone rules before the 2012 election when they thought for a brief moment that they might lose it…. Don't worry, the fever soon passed.) And Jacob Sullum can give you a succinct tour of Obama's late-breaking epiphany on surveillance reform.

But here's a startling historical nugget I turned up when conducting my annual ritual of reading past SOTUs of presidents at the same juncture of their second terms: Do you know who had a longer and more convincing passage about personal privacy vis-a-vis the surveillance state? Richard Nixon. In 1974:

One measure of a truly free society is the vigor with which it protects the liberties of its individual citizens. As technology has advanced in America, it has increasingly encroached on one of those liberties—what I term the right of personal privacy. Modern information systems, data banks, credit records, mailing list abuses, electronic snooping, the collection of personal data for one purpose that may be used for another—all these have left millions of Americans deeply concerned by the privacy they cherish.

See? Told ya. |||

And the time has come, therefore, for a major initiative to define the nature and extent of the basic rights of privacy and to erect new safeguards to ensure that those rights are respected.

I shall launch such an effort this year at the highest levels of the Administration, and I look forward again to working with this Congress in establishing a new set of standards that respect the legitimate needs of society, but that also recognize personal privacy as a cardinal principle of American liberty. 

On the one hand, this is an always-timely reminder that presidents are inherently full of shit, presiding over actions that make a mockery of their rhetoric. On the other, it's hard to think of a more damning indictment than the most imperious president of my lifetime coming off as more robustly concerned with the 4th Amendment than the constitutional law professor who was elected in a spasm of disgust at executive-branch overreach. Whoever thought that saying "Obama, you're no Nixon!" would be an insult?

NEXT: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for State of the Union Addresses Has Got to Stop

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  1. Nixon only wanted to spy on his political enemies. Obama wants to spy on everyone. Nixon went after a few high profile hippie leaders and tried to get blackmail material on members of Congress. Obama in contrast turned the IRS loose on people in Dallas trying to form a two bit political action committee or some guy in Ohio who asked him a question he didn’t like and a cancer patient who had the nerve to tell the media he lost his insurance thanks to Obamacare.

    There is something petty and much more disturbing about Obama. Most disturbing of all is Nixon had a collection of ten or twelve two bit crooks like G. Gorden Liddy to do his dirty work. Obama has hundreds or maybe thousands of dedicated tenured GS employees in the FBI, IRS, FEC, NSA, CIA and other places who will do all of his dirty work without even being ordered to. No one in the White House had to tell the IRS to leak Joe the Plumber’s tax returns or audit Sarah Palin’s father every year. They just knew what to do.

    1. They just knew what to do.

      I have contended that from Obama to Christie to anything that is even remotely similar, one of two things is true: either the boss knows what’s going on and gives it the wink/nod treatment, or the culture is such that the staff believes the boss will be on board with it.

      Few organizations have genuinely rogue staffers who do outlandish stuff. It almost always has either the implicit or explicit approval of the boss.

      1. I have never seen anything like that in my time in government. But the fact is that all of that and more did happen and no one was ever punished for it.

        Since we don’t know who is doing it, it is hard to tell if it is the culture or if it is a few well placed employees and various low level political hacks he has put into those agencies.

        It might be the latter. I say that because it would help to explain this administration’s obsession with secrecy and punishing leakers. The average IRS employee wouldn’t do such things. The people who do, however, want to make sure that t he ones who won’t don’t get any ideas about leaking the truth or going to the media.

        Think about the situation a whistleblower in this administration is in. Who are you going to go to? The major media won’t report anything you tell them and if you give it to someone who will all of the power of the media will come down on your head. Would you really want to put your family through what MSNBC and the New York Times would do to them if you blew the whistle? And that is not to mention the IRS and DOJ. They went after Sarah Palin’s father. The would no doubt go after people’s parents and siblings and children or whoever else they wanted to.

        1. I wonder if anyone else finds it just a tad ironic who the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration evah” has also prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other. Hell, they went after James Rosen’s parents.

          If culture overstates it, then the calculus applies to those involved – if Obama did not expressly okay it, those involved had reason to be believe he would not oppose whatever they did.

          1. The same people who were convinced that Bush and Rumsfeld were responsible for Abu Garib because their stance on interrogation created a “culture” where tortured was encouraged, think that Obama, a President who joked about auditing his enemies and whose closest adviser said on multiple occasions how they were going to use their power to reward their friends and punish their enemies, could be in any way responsible for what is happening now.

        2. Has Snowden’s family been targeted?

          1. I wouldn’t be surprised. I haven’t ever seen them in the media. My guess is that they are smart enough to keep their heads down.

            Imagine if Snowden’s dad started going on TV making the case for his son and otherwise embarrassing Obama, you don’t think he wouldn’t get a visit from the FBI and IRS?

            I have no doubt they were extensively interviewed by the FBI when Snowden leaked all that and were told to shut up and play ball and not embarrass Obama.

          2. Think about this sarcasmic. How easy would it be to get an indictment against someone in Snowden’s family? All you need is a theory that someone in his family knew about what he was doing and didn’t report it to authorities. That would be so easy. Who cares if you can prove it or not. You just have to have some known fact to hang your hat on to be able to make a few inferences and you could get an indictment. And the threat of an indictment is enough to keep anyone who knows what is good for them quiet.

    2. The JtP thing was at the state of Ohio’s level, I think, not the federal level.

      1. Now that you say that, I think you are right. Good catch.

  2. That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs

    But you just said earlier that you’d take executive action when necessary to…oh, you don’t care and those are just words.

    1. I thought Congress was gridlocked and it was impossible to get anything passed? Is that a lie or is Obama saying “I will happily do nothing about this and blame it on Congress”?

      1. It’s actually a pretty sweet set-up for him. His supporters are morons that thrive on his words so they’ll eat it up.

        And when nothing changes they’ll blame Republicans and dutifully vote Democrat in November.

        1. There was a thread a few days ago on his new EO on domestic spying. I went through and read it and pointed out how if you read it carefully, it doesn’t provide any protections at all. The NSA can still spy on everyone and is free to pass any information they find about criminal activity on to law enforcement.

          But the fact that he singed an EO gives his trolls and brain dead supporters like Tony and Shreek a talking point to lie with. And that is all they need.

  3. That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs

    I will work with congress to fix abuses of government that are entirely in my branch and completely under my authority.

    For issues of domestic economic policy that must be drafted in both houses of congress before requiring I do anything? Fuck that, the Senate is now my phone, and the House in now my pen. Are there any questions?


    1. Didn’t you know? The only thing keeping the Obamessiah from leading us to the new Jerusalem is the death grip that the obstructionist teathuglicans in the House have on the executive branch of government. OTOH, everything good is still his doing.

  4. But 9/11, 9/11, 9/11!

  5. Jeremy Scahill tweeted last night that Obama’s “prudent limits on drone use” meant that he was only going to drone bomb SOME weddings. Seemed correct to me.

  6. Oh come on, back then the US only had to deal with a nuclear superpower with active spies throughout the country and government, real domestic unrest and other junk. It was easy for Nixon to be soft on domestic surveillance.

  7. Every time something like this comes up I like to return to hopes of the most fervent sycophants.

    Go on….you know you want to!

    1. Oh Christ, why did I click on that? My brain is currently trying to escape through my ear.

  8. Clapper’s twitter account has gone even more into full-on propaganda mode.

    1. What a clown that guy is. He is so stupid and arrogant, he thinks he is helping his case. He is not even a proper villain. A proper villain would know to keep his head down and let all of this blow over or better yet how to appear reasonable while co-opting your critics.

      It is a good question to wonder how broke our government culture must be for it to have put someone as obviously stupid and incompetent as Clapper in such a high position.

    2. That’s some sick shit. Its like the Bagdad Bob of the Stasi as interpreted by the Director of National Perjury.

  9. As technology has advanced in America, it has increasingly encroached on one of those liberties?what I term the right of personal privacy.

    Did he write that with a quill pen?

    1. what I term the right of personal privacy

      America didn’t even know what privacy was until Obama showed them.

      1. True. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

  10. Obviously secret Obama code signaling: “For fuck’s sake, please impeach me already! What the hell are you waiting for?”

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