To his credit, the president mounted his defense of the NSA's data-vacuuming programs on the simple historical fact that this has been going on since we all started hiding under the bed on September 12, 2001. Unfortunately, that was the only completely convincing part of his presentation.
Obama spoke at length about the need to find a proper balance between national security prerogatives and civil liberties. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
You can argue -- and I have -- that we all tacitly consented to this kind of thing when we allowed our legislators to pass the Patriot Act without facing any substantial pushback at the polls, and that we all continued to consent to it by not making it a bigger issue in our politics than we have. But on a lot of the operational details, we didn't make any choices as a society at all. They were made for us by faceless bureaucrats, and in secret. We made one large global choice -- to get scared out of our Bill Of Rights 12 years ago -- but as for all the other "choices," they were not ours.
Obama's remarks came a day after the revelation that the NSA and FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in an effort to track foreign targets. Top-secret documents revealed by The Washington Post on Thursday show the agencies have been extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs as part of a program code-named PRISM. Until now, the program had not been made public. Obama said Congress has been briefed on the program and it does not involve monitoring e-mails of U.S. citizens and residents.
Listen very closely, Mr. President, because I voted for you twice and, given the alternatives, I would do so again. OK? Here it is. I...don't...believe...you.
There are 20,000 people working at the NSA. I do not believe they are all holding to the letter of the law. Nor do I think they are all being held to the letter of the law by their supervisors. And I think you were awfully damn glib about why I should believe you, because all of us out here now live in a world where anonymity, once a right, is now an anachronism, and Jeff Merkley is right about it, too.
The administration hasn't listened at all. We've asked for the rulings of the FISA court [...] about how it interprets the laws that Congress passed to declassified so that we can have a conversation with the American people about that. For example, the question is how is scooping up your cell phone data, which tracks where you are, my cell phone data, related to an investigation? That's the plain language of the law: "related to an investigation." Anyone would hear that and think that's a certain hurdle that has to met, that there is a crime or a potential crime or a potential national security threat that justifies scooping up your information and my information. Clearly the administration has not followed what an ordinary person would be the standard of the law here and has not been willing to release the opinion of the FISA Court about how they're interpreting that language despite repeated requests from Congress to do so.
(Once again, I am old enough to remember when FISA itself was the primary offense against the Constitution. Now, it's the last bastion against government overreach. It's a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.)
When the president talks about "oversight" in this context, it is to laugh. Most members of Congress were more than willing to hand this all over to the Executive because it's easier than actually exercising their constitutional functions -- Same thing with war powers in general -- and the ones that aren't discover that they can't exercise true oversight because most of what need for the oversight function is, itself, secret. Sooner or later, the snake eats his own tail, and there is no reason to believe any president in this area again. Ever.
Thomas P.M. Barnett, Chris Jones, Tom Junod, Scott Raab, Eric Rauchway, John H. Richardson, Eli Sanders, Mark Warren, John Weaver, and other smart people, occasionally.View All Posts