Change We (Can’t) Believe In

President-elect Barack Obama pledged to reverse the abuses committed by then-President George W. Bush. How times change. (Photo credit: White House)

President-elect Barack Obama pledged to reverse the abuses committed by then-President George W. Bush. How times change. (Photo credit: White House)

In defending widespread domestic surveillance, President Obama betrays the promise and ideals that won him the Oval Office.

Elected on the promise of hope and change, President Barack Obama has always been seen, for better or worse, as a transformational figure in American politics. His 2008 campaign rallied liberals eight years out of power while his presidency unleashed grassroots conservative fury. Divisive from the beginning, there was at least the consolation that the new president was no George W. Bush; the post-9/11 security state would reign no more.

Or would it? It’s been a hard month for the Obama administration, with one explosive scandal after another. First the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was caught profiling certain political groups, then the Justice Department revealed it had secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press (AP). Worrying, to be sure, but nothing compared to the latest bombshells.

According to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden, the security state is alive and well — and expanding. Snowden leaked top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents which reveal an unprecedented domestic surveillance program codenamed PRISM. Starting with Microsoft in 2007, the federal government has mined civilian data from at least nine telecom service providers. These providers include Yahoo!, Google, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, AOL, and Apple — though all have denied involvement in PRISM data analysis.

Then there’s the NSA’s “metadata” initiative, collecting key details on virtually all Verizon telecommunications in the United States. This information includes who a customer may have called, where they called from, and how long they spent on the call. Why only Verizon is unclear, though it’s possible that the government’s “metadata” operations are in an pilot stage where a single target makes sense. Whereas the PRISM targets may have had their data streams covertly intercepted (hence the corporate denials), Verizon was subject to an actual court order.

The government’s legal justification? The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established the top-secret court which grants approval for covert data collection. It was this court that ordered Verizon to comply with the NSA’s “metadata” request, and it doesn’t appear to be a very effective check on domestic surveillance. Since the War on Terror began over ten years ago, the court has denied just 10 surveillance requests. It has approved more than 15,000, leading one former NSA analyst to call it “a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp.”

Snowden has since fled the United States for Hong Kong to escape federal prosecution, hoping to eventually secure political asylum in Iceland. The White House has already moved to discredit his version of events, President Obama himself defending the PRISM initiative as a necessary tool in combating global terror. This from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate once celebrated as the answer to George W. Bush. The NSA’s surveillance activity is disturbing but perhaps expected in a post-9/11 world, but Americans trusted Barack Obama to give them more than what they had come to expect.

Forget “Change We Can Believe In.” The more things “change” in Washington, the more they stay the same.

Detailed below are statements made by Barack Obama from his early exposure on the national stage to his remarks on the PRISM leak last week. Has the President been consistent on the balance between liberty and security? You decide.


Candidate for U.S. Senate Barack Obama, July 2004

“If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.”

Keynote speaker for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, MA, senatorial candidate Barack Obama here spoke in defense of due process of law. The address propelled him to national spotlight and sparked rumors of a 2008 presidential run.


Senator Barack Obama, December 2005

“If someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document — through library books they’ve read and phone calls they’ve made — this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear their plea, no jury will hear their case.

This is just plain wrong.

Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is one thing — and it’s the right thing — but doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.”

During floor debate on a motion to reauthorize certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, Senator Obama told his colleagues that the secret collection of Americans’ personal data was “wrong” and inconsistent with American ideals.


Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama, August 2007

“[The Bush] administration 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 our constitution and our freedom.”

As his words attest, Democratic candidate for president Barack Obama was a leading critic of the Bush administration’s surveillance activities. Then-Senator Obama voted No to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act’s wiretapping provisions in 2005.


Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama, December 2007

“Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill …”

This statement was issued to explain the Senator’s support of a filibuster against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the law authorizing the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.


Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama, January 2008

Senator Obama slammed President George W. Bush’s “warrentless wiretapping” program at a primary election day rally at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College (no transcript available). The Senator lost the Granite State’s Democratic primary by less than 3 percentage points to then-adversary Sen. Hillary Clinton.


President-Elect Barack Obama, January 2009

“We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of [Bush administration] interrogations, detentions, [warrantless wiretapping,] and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law.”

On air with journalist George Stephanopoulos, President-elect Obama claimed that his administration would example abuses carried out by the Bush administration. His comments imply a belief that Bush officials felt they were above the law when it came to national security.


President Barack Obama, January 2009

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

In his first Inaugural Address, the new President flatly rejected the Bush administration’s claim that some American liberty was the price for security from terrorism. President Obama claimed then that the Founding Fathers devised a Constitution to prevent that very trade.


President Barack Obama, January 2013

“You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

For his second Inaugural Address, President Obama largely focused on income inequality and the power of active government. Some comments, however, were more philosophical in nature and spoke to the need for Americans to defend their “ancient values” against erosion.


President Barack Obama, May 2013

“You’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. You should reject these voices. Because what these suggest is that somehow our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”

Commencement speaker at Ohio State University, President Obama assured graduates that conservative cynics were wrong about the “dangerous” role and activities of the national government.


President Barack Obama, June 2013

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more than any commitment I make: number one, to keep the American people safe; and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.

It’s important to recognize that you can’t have a hundred percent security and also then have a hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Speaking at a White House press conference to address the NSA leaks, President Obama claimed that his actions were consistent with statements made in Congress and on the campaign trail.


One response to “Change We (Can’t) Believe In

  1. Obama, top legislators and national security officials defend the surveillance programs as necessary to combat terrorism, arguing that some privacy must be sacrificed in a balanced approach.

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