Opinion: Columnists

President Obama defends surveillance practices he decried as senator

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Opinion,David Freddoso,Columnists,Op-Eds,Homeland Security,Fox News,MSNBC,National Security,Surveillance,Analysis

"I don't have to listen to your phone calls to know what you're doing," said the senator, mounting a vigorous defense of civil liberties against government intrusion. "If I know every single phone call you made, I'm able to determine every single person you talk to. I can get a pattern about your life that is very, very intrusive."

That must have been Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., right? Perhaps Ron Wyden, D-Ore.? In fact, that was Joe Biden, now our Vice President, speaking in 2006, on a USA Today report that the NSA was broadly gathering data on Americans' phone calls. Some people experience changes of heart; others, changes of party in the White House.

President Obama now finds himself defending as "a modest encroachment of privacy" the same NSA surveillance practices that Senator Obama specifically decried in 2007, of government going "on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document  through library books they've read and phone calls they've made." After the AP scandal and the Justice Department's legal stipulation that FOX News reporter James Rosen is a criminal co-conspirator for merely doing his job, journalists can console themselves with the knowledge that they aren't the only ones being spied on.

It sure was hell as simple when George W. Bush was president... It was so black and white. George Bush and Dick Cheney, they were evil. Now suddenly, we're launching drone strikes into countries, killing civilians, where we aren't even at warÉand we're killing Americans, and suddenly everybody goes, 'You know what, this is such a complicated thing.'

Many conservatives feel this is proof that George W. Bush was given an unfair shake. The media were not nearly as unfair on this particular issue as conservatives remember (even Chris Matthews, increasingly ideological and bombastic today, was circumspect on this issue in 2006), but the atrophy of the civil libertarian Left in the Obama era has been glaring in general. As MSNBC host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough put it last week, "[I]t sure was hell as simple when George W. Bush was president... It was so black and white. George Bush and Dick Cheney, they were evil. Now suddenly, we're launching drone strikes into countries, killing civilians, where we aren't even at war ... and we're killing Americans, and suddenly everybody goes, 'You know what, this is such a complicated thing.'"

Yet if Obama, congressional Democrats, or the media have been inconsistent or hypocritical, the public has been just as bad. According to the recent Pew survey on NSA monitoring, about one-third of self-identified Republicans and half of self-identified Democrats have reversed their positions on government monitoring of phone calls since the issue arose when Bush was president.

Both sides have grounds to object in all cases. Conservatives have groused since the early days after 9/11 that government stupidly fishes for terrorists by trawling the entire ocean of the innocent, leaving no wheelchair-bound grandmother unfrisked. And many voices on the Left (and a few on the libertarian Right) were warning about the PATRIOT Act as early as 2001.

Still, at that time, the notion that this "Section 215" would be used to gather full data on all Americans' phone calls would have seemed like the fanciful ravings of the tin-foil-hat crowd. The statute allowing it requires the FBI director (or a high-ranking subordinate) to stipulate, under oath, that the materials being collected are "relevant to an authorized investigation ... to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

It may seem a stretch to extend such "relevance" to your 16-year-old daughter's cell phone and the phones of all her friends, but that is how the law is being applied. Of the 98 senators who voted for the PATRIOT Act in 2001, how many believed this is how it would be used?

There are two lessons here. One is that neither side has a political monopoly on righteousness or foresight. The other is that government does not deserve implicit trust that it will not take new powers to whatever maximal and absurd conclusions are allowed in black and white.

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