Call Data Scares Scandal-Weary Americans - Commentary

“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 the Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing but protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. It is not who we are. It is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA Court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. 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. This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not. There are no short cuts to protecting America.”

Tough words these are. They were uttered by President Obama while he was still Senator Obama, outraged at similar but less widespread monitoring than his administration was just exposed conducting. What prompted this change of heart on the necessity and constitutionality of the procedures found within the Patriot Act? After coming into office, did President Obama learn more about the full extent of the threat against America’s security or was he just bluffing on the campaign trail in order to secure the most powerful job in the world? It seems the White House isn’t willing to explain, instead deciding to issue a blanket defense of the collection of Verizon users’ metadata as a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.”

As Max discussed earlier, whether we like it or not, the data mining that the NSA took part in was both legal and necessary in a world where terrorism is still very much a threat, as we saw most recently in Boston and London. Many, including Politico and National Journal‘s Ron Fournier are calling the leak, first reported by Glenn Greenwald, further proof that Obama’s second term could really be considered George W. Bush’s fourth in terms of national security measures. Former senior Bush administration officials are playing the unlikely role of Obama’s defenders today, including Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s former press secretary. According to the AP, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has stated that the phone records collection prevented a domestic terror attack. In other words, the data mining did exactly what it was meant to do, which is why it was written into the 2001 legislation commonly known as the Patriot Act, and why it has remained in subsequent reauthorizations of the law. 

Where I diverge from Max’s defense of the practice, however, is the assumption that the data mined would only be used as part of an effort to detect patterns that would indicate a terrorist threat. What may have seemed like paranoid delusions just a month ago now are a reality. Could the call data taken from Verizon customers (do we really believe that this collection is limited to Verizon customers?) be used by other governmental agencies to track the calls of conservative activists or journalists reporting on stories that aren’t in the interest of the Obama administration? These scenarios, after the IRS scandal and controversy surrounding wiretapping of AP and Fox News journalists, are unfortunately very real possibilities. How much confidence should Americans have that their call data is being handled only by super computers at the NSA, searching for patterns as part of a larger national security operation? What assurances can the White House and the executive branch give the American people who are already increasingly wary of the politicization, size and scope of the government’s power in the wake of the IRS scandal, that the data was and will continue to be solely used in the interest of national security?

While many liberals vociferously expressed their mistrust of the Bush administration’s commitment to civil liberties, Americans never saw under Bush the kind of abuses of personal information in a politicized campaign against real or imagined foes of the administration that have emerged in the last month about the Obama White House. The Bush White House was closely watched by an American media that was, at its core, incredibly hostile to the president and his party and eager to report on any misstep, even if these missteps later proved to be outright fabrications. In contrast, it is only with the leaks about surveillance on AP reporters that the American media has even stirred in response to the Obama White House’s missteps. Today’s story on the NSA data collection was broken first by a foreign newspaper, the U.K.’s Guardian, not an American publication. While the data collection itself is a defensible and necessary step to protect Americans’ safety, the Obama administration needs to prove to the American people that it can be trusted with the information it has gathered and continues to gather for the sake of national security. 

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