Senator Obama vs. President Obama on Government Surveillance

President Barack Obama and his apologists in Congress have launched a full-scale defense of his administration broad use the PATRIOT Act, through which the NSA is surveilling millions of Americans who have done absolutely nothing wrong. The reversal on the part of Obama is astonishing.

As the NSA scandal — and yes, it is a scandal — was breaking on Wednesday and into Thursday, news outlets began uncovering some of the past positions Obama took when he was a Senator and a presidential candidate. While his presidency has been more like George W. Bush’s third and fourth term, Obama once took a strong stand on civil liberties — believe it or not.

The Hill noted last week that then-Sen. Obama co-sponsored legislation in 2005 that would have banned the mass collection of phone records, like the NSA has done with Verizon. And during the summer of 2007, when he was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination, Obama knocked the policies of the the Bush Administration and pledge that he would take a direction that respected civil liberties.

“This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom,” he said. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more National Security Letters to spy on citizens who aren’t suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. That is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists.”

He was even more direct a few seconds later. “We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers and that justice is not arbitrary,” said Obama. “This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security; it is not.”

In his first inaugural address, Obama against repeated the “false choice” line and offered a different path for Americans.

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations,” said Obama. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

So “hope” and “change,” buzzwords  Obama spouted during his campaign in 2007 and 2008, is now “bullshit” and the “status quo.”

The defense now is that this ability to snoop on Americans is that it’s legal and has been around for a long time. That doesn’t make it ethically or morally right. Obama has said that the court that issues the warrants has oversight. However, 99.97% of warrant requests are granted — making the court a rubber stamp for the administration — and there is little actual oversight, as Timothy Lee explained on Friday.

“Obama’s comments make it sound like the programs are subject to rigorous and continuous oversight. But the simple fact that Congress is briefed and federal judges are involved doesn’t mean either branch is actually able to serve as an effective check. The excessive secrecy surrounding these programs makes that unlikely,” wrote Lee at the Washington Post. “Take Congress. When the government has briefed members of Congress on its surveillance activities, it has often been in meetings where ‘aides were barred and note-taking was prohibited.’”

“It’s impossible for Congress to provide effective oversight under those conditions,” he added.

As to the argument that has been pervasive from advocates of the PATRIOT Act and other secretive surveillance techniques — that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about — Tim Carney offers a brilliant take down.

“[P]rivacy has real value, even when you’re doing nothing wrong. You’re not ‘hiding something’ when you shut the door to use the bathroom or take a shower. A husband and wife might be very proud to show off their kids, but still expect privacy regarding the process of making such children. It’s the same with communications,” wrote Carney. “It’s reasonable to not want anyone reading your email fights with your sister, or your groveling apology to your wife. It’s perfectly legitimate to say your credit card purchases are none of the government’s business.”

The Constitution is supposed to provide three equal branches of government with each one serving as a check on the other. It’s not exactly a new revelation that the executive branch has become drunk with power, but the NSA scandal highlights the need for reform and greater oversight. Congress must take a look at the provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are a threat to the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment either matters or it doesn’t.


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