President Obama 'Welcomes' The Debate On Surveillance That He's Avoided For Years Until It Was Forced Upon Him
from the that's-not-welcoming-it dept
President Obama’s incredibly weak response to the revelations this week of widespread data collection of pretty much everything by the NSA is to say that he “welcomes” the debate. But, of course, he hasn’t actually welcomed the debate at all, because people have tried to bring that debate to him for years, and he’s brushed them off:
When it comes to surveillance, Obama has as president shown no sign of really wanting to have a robust debate. For years, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have been pleading with the administration to disclose more information about call-tracking tactics that they suggested would shock many Americans.
The administration largely rebuffed those calls. Only after the leak Wednesday of a four-page “top secret” court order indicating that millions of Americans’ phone calls were tracked on a daily basis did officials begin to confirm the program’s details.
But Obama could have chosen at any time to disclose the data-sifting program, or even its rough outlines. That fact leaves critics unimpressed with his latest round of let’s-talk-it-over.
In other words, he’s not “welcoming” the debate at all. The debate is happening with or without him, and when he had the chance to “welcome” the debate, he didn’t. Now, it appears, he’s trying to appear willing “to talk” about something that’s now gone way beyond the stage where “welcoming the debate” is sufficient.
If anything, his helps explain why over-aggressive secrecy is such a stupid government policy. If they had been open about this and there had been public discussions earlier, and people were free to express their concerns, and the government could explain its position, then the discussion would have been different, and more interesting. But having all this information denied by government officials for years, only to come out via a leak just looks so much worse.
Update: So around the time this post went up, President Obama actually spoke directly about all of this. He focused on a non-issue, however: about how they’re not listening to everyone’s phone calls. Except that was clear from the beginning. It was always said that it was just the data — but it’s a hell of a lot of data: who you called, when you called, how long you spoke to them. That’s data that most people feel should be private. After that, he said this:
Now, with respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States. And again, in this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA Court has to authorize it.
But that’s not entirely accurate, since it seems pretty clear that there was access to data that included US citizens, so long as the claim was that the investigation (not necessarily any of the parties) targeted non-US persons.
He repeatedly points out that Congress and the FISA Court have repeatedly known and authorized all of this — which could be read as throwing Congress a bit under the bus (not that they don’t deserve it):
So in summary, what you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved. And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout. And we’re also setting up — we’ve also set up an audit process when I came into office to make sure that we’re, after the fact, making absolutely certain that all the safeguards are being properly observed.
But that doesn’t help. It just raises more questions about who Congress really represents, and whether or not “the public” is included.
The President does suggest that he might be open to reconsidering some of this, but also explains why he failed to live up to his promise to stop warrantless wiretapping:
But I think it’s important for everybody to understand, and I think the American people understand, that there are some trade-offs involved. You know, I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content — that on, you know, net, it was worth us doing.
That’s — some other folks may have a different assessment of that. But I think 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.
He was also asked how he felt about it being leaked, and said he wasn’t happy about it, given that it was secret for a reason — but then uses the opportunity to throw Congress under the bus again:
That’s why these things are classified.
But that’s also why we’ve set up congressional oversight. These are the folks you all vote for as your representative in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs.
And if in fact there was — there were abuses taking place, presumably, those members of Congress could raise those issues very aggressively. They’re empowered to do so.
Congress: your ball.