When he was a U.S. senator, Barack Obama supported placing tight restrictions on the surveillance operations intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) can conduct against average Americans. The proposals Senator Obama backed are similar to ones President Obama now opposes.
Sen. Obama actually cosponsored a bill that would have required intelligence agencies to demonstrate a legitimate need for surveillance before accessing records or data. The bill, cosponsored by Obama and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2007, would have banned the kind of mass surveillance operations that Edward Snowden has exposed, a recent Atlantic magazine article pointed out.
The Atlantic actually published a list of the surveillance restrictions that Senator Obama worked for. It noted that the Obama Administration has gone on record as opposing all of those measures.
Obama Defends What He Once Opposed
Obama is now defending practices that he wanted to ban just a few years ago.
In fact, the White House is now opposing a bill by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would ban bulk records collection by the NSA.
That’s right; back when he was a U.S. senator, Obama was a strong supporter of privacy and an opponent of mass surveillance. He and Feingold cosponsored at least one other bill that would have restricted the NSA’s ability to collect information from individual Americans. Some other examples of Obama’s changing of position include:
- Sen. Obama tried to restrict some of the activities of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA. FISA is the body that approves some of the eavesdropping programs.
- Sen. Obama wanted the government to have to tell people that were arrested because of such orders that they were the objects of surveillance. The New York Times uncovered cases where the government refused to divulge the information used to locate and capture suspects. That meant defense attorneys were unable to challenge potentially unconstitutional searches and seizures. The Times reported that the Obama administration has actually taken cases to the Supreme Court to support the government’s “right” not to divulge the source of information to defense attorneys. The Obama administration is doing everything in its power to maintain the status quo of blanket surveillance.
- Sen. Obama wanted the decisions of the FISA court made public so that the public and Congress could see what methodology was used to authorize surveillance. The Obama Justice Department has tried to block Freedom of Information Act requests about NSA programs. Some of these requests include efforts to get FISA proceedings declassified.
Obama at Odds with Liberals
Obama’s hawkish position on surveillance has put him at odds with a lot of liberals, including some of his former allies. Obama, it seems, is willing to sacrifice the political support of some of his strongest allies in order to protect surveillance.
The president has also emerged as a strong supporter of the culture of secrecy that protects organizations like the NSA from scrutiny and public accountability. This, too, is a change from Sen. Obama’s positions. As senator, he wanted the attorney general to tell the American people and Congress how much data about average people intelligence agencies are collecting. Today, President Obama is having his attorney general to try to prosecute Edward Snowden for doing just that. He’s even putting pressure on foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin to get Snowden extradited to stand trial for preparing a report he once wanted made public.
President Obama’s change of heart and mind on surveillance issues is puzzling. A man who was once a vocal critic and opponent of surveillance is now its staunchest defender and promoter. It is also hard to understand because the president hasn’t explained his change of attitude.
One reason for the change of attitude is simple politics. As a senator from a liberal state (Illinois), Obama may have believed that he needed to oppose surveillance to get grassroots political support. Now, as president, Obama might believe that the American people support his tough stance on surveillance. It also means Obama might change his mind if polls continue to show that Americans are concerned about the NSA’s programs.
Every president, from FDR to Nixon, has ordered illegal secret surveillance operations. Nixon was the one who finally got caught and was held accountable for doing what his predecessors had done. Perhaps no president of either party can be relied upon to pull the plug on mass surveillance. Defenders of civil liberties can only hope that Congress or the courts will take action to protect the Constitution.