There seems to be no appeasing some folks on the left—let’s not even talk about the Obama-hating libertarians on the right—when it comes to their criticism of President Obama, in terms of his perceived involvement in a vast bipartisan conspiracy to make the Fourth Amendment null and void.
There is no such conspiracy, of course. We must keep in mind that what most Americans are seemingly worried about is “metadata” collection by the NSA, which President Obama said today,
does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead, a consolidation of phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes. The review group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused, and I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.
In other words, the government isn’t recording, or requiring companies to record, your personal phone calls and there has been no demonstrated “intentional abuse.”
Just after President Obama gave his important speech this morning on reforming the NSA (the specific reforms I will leave you to discover for yourself), I heard a guest on MSNBC, Michael Ratner, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, complain about how the President began his speech by offering “a bouquet of roses to the surveillance community, starting with the history of surveillance since the Revolution.”
Man, when your first criticism of the President’s speech begins with the speech’s structure, you are doing some Olympic-worthy straw-grasping.
The President did begin his speech with the history of “secret surveillance,” from Paul Revere to Union Army reconnaissance balloons to World War II codebreakers and communication interceptors to the Cold War-fighting National Security Agency, technically created by President Truman in 1952, but whose birth can be traced to the Signal Security Agency used to gather intelligence during WWII.
But even though he began with the positive history of our national intelligence gathering efforts, the President throughout the speech warned of the potential for abuse and “the risk of government overreach,” including spying on domestic “dissidents like Dr. King.” The President even said this:
I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future. They’re also right to point out that although the telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public debate.
So, yes, President Obama did begin his speech, which was essentially a rather vigorous defense of the NSA and intelligence gathering, with some history. But he also acknowledged the dangers involved, and he acknowledged the legitimacy of some of the criticism that has been offered since Edward Snowden leaked classified information to the world in June of 2013. More significantly, however, Mr. Obama ended the speech—and some people consider the ending the most important part of any speech—with the following, which I will excerpt in full because it will likely get lost in all the fog of anti-NSA or anti-Obama post-speech analysis:
When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed. Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas, to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions and for the international order. So while the reforms that I’ve announced will point us in a new direction, I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future. On thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead.
It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard. And I’ll admit the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating.
No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account.
But let’s remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity. As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control. Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.
Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations. For more than two centuries, our Constitution has weathered every type of change because we’ve been willing to defend it and because we’ve been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defense. Today is no different. I believe we can meet high expectations. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our nation while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth fighting for.
I hope everyone, including human rights activists like Michael Ratner, will pay at least as much attention to the end of the speech as Mr. Ratner paid to its beginning.