The Surveillance Speech: A Low Point in Barack Obama’s Presidency


Jon Stewart once reacted to a Barack Obama speech by marveling that "at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."

On Friday, President Obama spoke to us about surveillance as though we were precocious children. He proceeded as if widespread objections to his policies can be dispatched like a parent answers an eight-year-old who has formally protested her bedtime. He is so proud that we've matured enough to take an interest in our civil liberties! Why, he used to think just like us when he was younger, and promises to consider our arguments. But some decisions just have to be made by the grownups. Do we know how much he loves us? Can we even imagine how awful he would feel if anything bad ever happened while it was still his job to ensure our safety? *

By observing Obama's condescension, I don't mean to suggest tone was the most objectionable part of the speech. The disinformation should bother the American people most. The weasel words. The impossible-to-believe protestations. The factually inaccurate assertions. 

They're all there.

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The passage:has already corroded U.S. democracy in real ways.

The passage:

complicated reasons involving a variety of provisions, including Section 702, and much dubious wordplay) that the government does listen to the phone calls of innocent Americans who are not suspected of terrorism, often in a way that students of American history liken to "general warrant" Fourth Amendment violations. Sometimes, according to The Guardian and Senator Ron Wyden, no warrant is needed.

Obama is exploiting the fact that most people don't know Section 215 from any other provision of surveillance law. It would be as if I said to an employee at a company I owned, "nothing in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration code allows me to monitor the contents of your work email." That's true, but misleading. It's other parts of the law that confer the authority to spy.

The passage:entirely of one man's appointees. What if I told you, Democrats, that henceforth, abortion jurisprudence, voting-rights jurisprudence, labor law, or really any area of U.S. Constitutional law would be decided in secret and always by judges who John Roberts chose? How much confidence would you have in the outcome of decisions made in that court? Yet that is how the FISA court works. And we're supposed to trust that the secret court's decisions are getting everything correct!

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zealously persecuted a number of national security whistleblowers. I've yet to hear any whistleblower assert that Snowden could have dealt with this internally. Even the senators who thought Americans' rights were being violated could do little to stop it.

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co-sponsored a 2007 bill, introduced by Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) that would have required the government to demonstrate, with 'specific and articulable facts,' that it wanted records related to 'a suspected agent of a foreign power' or the records of people with one degree of separation from a suspect," Karen Brandeisky notes at Pacific Standard.

In addition:

co-sponsored an amendment… which would have further limited the ability of the government to collect any communications to or from people residing in the U.S. The measure would have also required government analysts to segregate all incidentally collected American communications. If analysts wanted to access those communications, they would have needed to apply for individualized surveillance court approval. The amendment failed 35-63. Obama later reversed his position and supported what became the law now known to authorize the Prism program.

There's more:

all incidentally collected American communications and provide the report to congressional intelligence committees. The amendment failed 35-63. The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community told Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) last year that it would be unfeasible to estimate how many American communications have been incidentally collected, and doing so would violate Americans' privacy rights.

And also:

co-sponsored a 2007 measure that would have required the government to tell defendants before it used any evidence collected under the controversial section of the Patriot Act.

And then there's the fact that:

article. But Obama stands before us and spins, as if his position on this stuff hasn't changed at all. It's one of the most insulting lines he delivered.

The passage:

… If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden's put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they're not abused is because they're — these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

The act of collecting and storing the private information of tens of millions of innocent Americans, as well as whatever you want from everyone else on earth, is itself an abuse of power.

Also, there is no reason that the public would be aware of abuses in these very recently revealed programs even if they had happened on multiple occasions. The whole programs were kept from us for years! Why would we expect to know if an analyst was checking up on his ex-girlfriend, or if an overzealous Obama supporter was targeting Mitt Romney backers in 2012? How many years did it take before the abuses documented by the Church Committee came to light?

There is, finally, clear evidence that at least some unlawful abuse has happened already (emphasis added):

released on Friday:

Since the telephony metadata collection program under Section 215 was initiated, there have been a number of significant compliance and implementation issues that were discovered as a result of DOJ and ODNI reviews and internal NSA oversight. In accordance with the Court's rules, upon discovery, these violations were reported to the FISC, which ordered appropriate remedial action. The incidents, and the Court's responses, were also reported to the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in great detail. These problems generally involved human error or highly sophisticated technology issues related to NSA's compliance with particular aspects of the Court's orders. The FISC has on occasion been critical of the Executive Branch's compliance problems as well as the Government's court filings. However, the NSA and DOJ have corrected the problems identified to the Court, and the Court has continued to authorize the program with appropriate remedial measures. 

So we've had (1) human failure and technological failure, (2) sections of FISA violated, and (3) a FISA-court opinion that some of what the NSA did violated the Constitution. We are, in fact, reading about abuses! They're just murky, because Team Obama is deliberately keeping the details secret. 

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The surveillance debate is arguably the most important of our era.

Yet throughout the surveillance debate, the executive branch, including Obama, has lied, obfuscated, and misled the American people in a variety of ways. Before Edward Snowden's leaks, they could at least tell themselves that the disinformation was serving the purpose of keeping al-Qaeda operates from learning the general contours of our surveillance capabilities. But today, when that excuse has long since expired, Obama is still lying, obfuscating, and misleading the American people. In doing so, he is preventing representative democracy from functioning as well as it might. With the stakes so high, and his performance so dubious in so many places, Friday's speech has got to be one of the low points of his presidency. 

(For analysis of the inadequate reforms Obama proposed, see here.)

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*Alas, Obama-as-daddy-figure isn't even wise and measured with his heavy-handedness, like Cliff Huxtable. Instead, America is stuck with one of those control-freak dads. It's as if, instead of the girl in the No Doubt song not being allowed to drive late at night, she can cruise as needed, but with a location tracker. Plus her dad hacking into the email of every boy in her social circle — not that he has time to read most of their private communications, but who knows what might one day come in handy? Did I mention she's now 31, and tried to get a restraining order, only to have a judge throw out the case because she couldn't prove dad was still listening? 

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