The disclosure of widespread surveillance of Americans’ phone records and of Internet data on foreigners and some Americans has created strange bedfellows among critics and defenders.
On one side, many conservative critics of the Obama administration as well as many of his supporters say the mining of phone call data — but not necessarily conversations — is a vital tool in finding patterns of possible terrorist activity that can be more deeply investigated.
On the other side, many of the administration’s critics and many Obama supporters are aghast at a secret program that so broadly and deeply collects private citizens’ information.
The revelation that the National Security Agency collects virtually all phone communications brings a long overdue public debate about both the Bush and Obama administrations’ disregard for individual freedoms in pursuit of its security aims. And it should prompt a revisit of the Patriot Act — hastily passed during the fearful time following 9/11. The act granted a broad range of expanded and secret government powers in the name of security.
The Bush administration abused the powers by conducting wiretaps without warrants. The NSA program overseen by Obama at least has some court oversight — but that oversight is from a secret court with the public and most of Congress unable to know what criteria are used to grant domestic surveillance or exactly what is done with the information.
The revelations raise fresh concerns about Obama’s handling of privacy and personal freedom issues, coming on the heels of disclosures that his administration has searched Associated Press journalists’ calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.
President Obama argues the routine collection of data on Americans, whether it has any intelligence use or not, is defensible because terrorists are a real threat. Americans, he says, should trust that the government uses internal controls to ensure Americans’ rights are not violated. Americans should be troubled that those supposed controls are secret and that they are to simply take their government’s word there won’t be abuses.
“I don’t think anybody in the press, or anybody in Congress, or frankly most people in the public ought to be too surprised when they realized that this was taken to the end,” Congressman John Tierney said Monday. “If you have an executive and you tell them you want to keep them safe and here are the boundaries, then they’re probably going to go to the extent of the boundaries, because nobody wants to be asking the question the day after: ‘Why didn’t you do something to prevent whatever might have happened?’”
Some members of Congress have long sounded the alarm about how the Patriot Act has been interpreted and used by the government. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wrote Attorney General Eric Holder last year saying most Americans “would be stunned” to learn the details of how the secret courts have interpreted the Patriot Act. There “now is a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” they wrote.
Tierney, who voted against the Patriot Act, said, “There were many of us who thought that we could have struck a better balance for privacy and civil liberties with security at the same time, and now we’re going to have that debate, hopefully.”
For a president who campaigned for more transparency and more attention to privacy rights, Obama’s lack of transparency and disregard for individual freedom are disappointing. The public and Congress need to take the lead in fixing the Patriot Act and ensuring Americans can be confident their private lives are not unduly intruded on by their government.