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.
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.
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?