In advance of a meeting with the Chinese premier in California, President Obama spent about 15 minutes defending the spying programs exposed by newly leaked information. The case he made is quite unconvincing, essentially saying “trust me, I wouldn’t abuse this power.”
“You can shout Big Brother or program run amok, but if you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Obama said in his first remarks on the subject since the issue arose this week…
Obama repeated details that administration had put out about the programs after reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post put two classified programs into the spotlight. The first involves U.S. officials gathering records on all phone calls, including call duration and phone numbers, to look for patterns that can be tied to terrorist activity. ”Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said repeatedly. “That’s not what this program is about.
But it doesn’t have to be. The metadata alone makes for an enormous breach of privacy, as one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers explains:
The line between “contents” and “metadata” has blurred in the age of mobile, and the government is taking advantage of that. In 1970s and 1980s, when we passed most of our current government privacy laws, phones were dumb, stationary, shared devices that we used several times a day and otherwise left alone. Today’s phones are “smart” personal devices that are turned on and on us all day. They generate a record of a specific individual’s calls. They also create a constant, moment-by-moment record of our movements. And once I have that, I know where you work, I know where you sleep, I know the church you attend and the doctors you visit. I can also make a pretty good guess of whether you’re gay or straight (are you always at 17th and Q on weekends?). As a few of the articles point out, it appears highly possible that the data authorized by the 215 order includes this kind of location data.
That’s just about the Verizon records order. On the internet spying:
Obama said that a second program collecting global internet traffic only applies to foreigners. “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people in the United States,” he said.
This appears to be a flat out lie. According to the reports, the screening process for the program seeks to target any communication for which they can establish a 51% certainty that one party to the call is foreign. That’s hardly comforting. And even if that were not the case, there is nothing preventing the government from going far beyond that mandate. Once you have backbone access, what is to prevent them from spying on anyone they want? This is why warrants are important, they require that the government show probable cause and that the warrant spell out specifically what information is sought and why. Wholesale data mining skips right over that constitutionally-mandated safeguard.
Both programs, the president maintained, are overseen by all three branches of the federal government, are reviewed regularly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and have been in place since the administration of President George W. Bush…
“It is important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we are doing,” Obama told reporters before flying to Los Angeles for a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
This is just a bad argument. Yes, the executive branch does brief some key members of Congress, the ones who serve on the intelligence committees in both chambers, on what they’re doing. But the heads of those two committees, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers, have shown a great zeal for pretty much anything the government does in the name of stopping terrorism, no matter how unconstitutional it may be. And the more civil liberties-minded members, like Ron Wyden, have been saying for years that if the public knew what the executive branch was doing they would be up in arms.
As for the courts overseeing it, that might seem a lot more compelling an argument if Obama had not spent his entire time in office working to make sure there is no such oversight through its use of the State Secrets Privilege. The courts have done almost nothing to reign in these abuses of the Bill of Rights, primarily because they have accepted the argument that they just have to trust the executive branch.
But here’s the worst argument he makes:
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he continued. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. On balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should be comfortable about.”
Obama also addressed growing outrage on Capitol Hill about the programs. “I welcome this debate. I think it’s healthy for our democracy. It’s a sign of maturity.”
You can’t have 100% security ever. You could put a camera in every room in every building in the country and still not have 100% security. And this has nothing to do with “inconvenience.” As for welcoming this debate, he can’t be serious. He certainly doesn’t welcome such a debate on the constitutionality of these programs in court; he does everything he can to make sure no judge ever rules directly on that issue, using standing arguments and privilege assertions to prevent it. And it isn’t possible to have a debate on those programs if the public doesn’t know what those programs are.
I simply do not trust Obama, or anyone else, with this kind of essentially unchecked power. The president has spent the last 4+ years zealously protecting the secrecy of these programs, making sure those who challenge his unconstitutional use of power never get their day in court and prosecuting anyone who reveals those illegal actions. That not only does not inspire trust, it ensures that any excuses they now offer for those programs ring utterly hollow.