To call Barack Obama a controversial president would be a pretty grievous understatement. With every decision he’s made since he took office in 2008, he has practically appeared to thrive in the midst of controversy. It’s a long list, and growing: he pushed through his unpopular health care law; he begged the American people for their blessing to start yet another war; and he has, at best, been complicit with a series of crimes perpetrated on the American people. At worst, he has been instrumental in them.
We’re talking, of course, about the National Security Agency and its terribly skewed worldview that seems to hold that the security of our nation and the personal privacy and liberty of its citizens are mutually exclusive.
Members of the Obama administration have tried to placate outraged Americans by claiming that Obama’s role in the NSA’s recently uncovered and far-reaching surveillance programs have been minimal, and that the NSA’s practices actually reach back quite a few years to the Bush Administration. That may not be as true as Obama supporters are probably hoping.
A recent story broke that revealed that the Obama administration had a sort of private victory in 2011 when they persuaded a surveillance court to lift certain restrictions on the NSA’s use of intercepted telephone calls and emails. In effect, this “victory” is responsible for allowing many of the most heinous crimes of the NSA to continue. During these last two years, the court’s decision has allowed the NSA to actively search through the communications of American citizens.
The court also ruled to extend – from five to six years – the length of time the NSA is permitted to retain communication records it has obtained, though this ruling allows for even longer periods of time under vague “special circumstances.”
The NSA and its accomplices in the Obama administration seem to be playing some kind of game of semantics where the word “target” is concerned, which is largely responsible for some of the murky and troublesome language in the court’s ruling. In other words, there seems to be little distinction being made between ordinary American citizens and genuine threats to national security.
Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology has pointed out that there is, in practice, no real difference between “actively” targeting American citizens and deliberately searching through Americans’ records after they’ve already been collected. The difference is essentially a semantic one.
Whatever the wordplay involved, however, there’s no denying that the government has very recently and fundamentally turned its own surveillance practices and philosophies on its head. There was a time when American privacy and civil liberties were the highest priority of our elected officials and various branches of government. Now, we live under a government that collects our sensitive data first and worries about the fallout and justifications later.
After the revelations about the NSA and PRISM came to light, the public outcry was rightfully deafening, though a select few held shakily to the argument that “innocent Americans have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide.” This defense of our government’s crimes, and President Obama’s complicity in them, is built on the shakiest of foundations.
To begin with, it seems to be alarmingly comfortable with the notion that the average American citizen has nothing to hide that isn’t related to terrorism. Even more than that, though, it ignores the inalienable right of the citizen of a civilized nation to have a degree of privacy.
Somewhere along the line, our leaders lost sight of the fact that liberty is security. A governmental agency that sacrifices liberty for security is essentially devouring its own tail. The NSA’s mandate is to protect American citizens from both foreign threats and the more insidious variety on American soil. The terrible irony in all of this is that it now is quite unable to protect the American people from themselves.
Had the true extent of the NSA’s overreach of its mandate come to light just a couple years ago, it could have cost Obama the presidency. The American youth that enthusiastically shepherded him into office in 2008 and 2012 have decried Obama’s lack of transparency and complicity in NSA precedents that are several years older than his own presidency. In particular, they have railed against the NSA’s incursion on the Internet, which is in many ways the last bastion of free speech left to us. If our conversations on the Internet are not private, they seem to be saying, nowhere is safe.
The NSA debate is probably the scandal many on the political right were hoping for throughout Obama’s first term, the one that would make him a one-term president. Instead, it came a little too late.
The good news is that history will remember Obama as the president that – quite by accident – helped to drag the ugly practices of our government into the unforgiving daylight. In that respect, he’s been one of the most productive presidents in modern times. It’s a strange sort of victory, but it’s the kind the American people need right now.
Adrienne Erin is a skeptical freelance writer strongly interested in politics. To see more of her work, check out a chart she designed explaining the Affordable Care Act, or tweet with her at @adrienneerin.
Photo credit: waif69 (Creative Commons)