Obama's Privacy Conversion

The surveillance debate that supposedly preoccupies the president is one he never wanted to have.


White House

As Ron Bailey noted last night, President Obama professed concern in his State of the Union address about the threat that "surveillance programs" pose to privacy. "While some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not," Obama said. "As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."

In assessing the president's sincerity on this issue, it is worth recalling that the debate he claims to consider important—the debate triggered by Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs—is a debate he never wanted to have. Obama did everything in his power to prevent that debate from occurring by keeping those programs secret. And far from thanking Snowden for provoking this debate, Obama wants to put him in prison.

Even after Americans began to learn about the surveillance programs that Obama tried to conceal from them, he insisted there was no cause for alarm. In June 2013, after news reports based on Snowden's leaks revealed that the NSA was surreptitiously collecting everyone's telephone records, President Obama called this massive dragnet a "modest encroachment" that "the American people should feel comfortable about." Half a year later, after polls showed that the public had turned against the NSA database, Obama changed his mind, portraying the NSA's metadata collection as a significant threat to privacy.

Obama worried that the database "has never been subject to vigorous public debate" and that "without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs." He even insisted that "I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became president." But somehow that skepticism did not manifest itself until the programs were revealed by leaks that Obama condemns.