By Christopher B. Daly
President Obama had an opportunity today to say (and thereby do) something meaningful about reining in the surveillance state and re-asserting the Constitution. Disappointingly, he whiffed.
Here’s what I think he should have said:
1. First and foremost, he should have said, I’m sorry. He should have expressed regret that since taking office, he has fallen under the spell of all the people in the Pentagon and White House whose job it is to tell goblin stories every day to the president. He showed far more common sense when he was a private citizen and even as a U.S. senator than he has been showing since he began starting each day listening to the presidential Daily Briefing, which is basically a serial horror story told by the surveillance/security apparatus.
2. He should have made a pledge. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen living in the United States and you are not a suspect in a crime, then you have an absolute right to be left alone. The government has no business spying on you. He could have quoted the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which says, in part:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,
He could have explained that in a modern context, your house means not only your literal house but also your apartment and your office and your motor vehicle. Cops and spies cannot enter those places without your leave. Extracting information from me without my permission outside of a criminal investigation is, on the face of it, an unreasonable search.
3. He should have added, If you are a U.S. citizen who is not suspected in a crime, then you have the right to be left alone not just by the NSA but by the whole government — the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the DOJ, the DEA, your state police, everybody.
4. He should have announced a policy that needs no Congressional approval: No more secret policies about secrets. He should have handed out copies of his administration’s legal memorandum laying out its constitutional rationale for its current practices. He should have said (as he did) that we cannot just get out of the spy business. We have legitimate reasons for spying on other countries and on terrorists. And we will need to keep the operational details of those operations secret. That’s obvious, and I know of no one who disagrees. But the president should have gone further and said, Under the Constitution, any president needs to go to Congress and say, in a general way, Here’s what we need to do … here’s why … here’s how much it will cost. Please vote for it.
5. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen who is suspected of a crime, you have an array of legal protections under the Constitution, under state and federal laws, and under case law, and we have no intention of messing with those.
6. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you’re on your own.
7. If you are a terrorist, watch your back.
In short, he should have said: Under our precious Constitution, the government should be transparent to the people, and the people should be opaque to the government.
Instead, he cherry-picked incidents from U.S. history to try to establish the idea that massive secret spying on law-abiding Americans in peacetime is somehow normal. He made it clear that he thinks no one did anything wrong (including Clapper, who blatantly lied to Congress under oath) except for Edward Snowden. And he offered some half-measures and said on anything difficult I am either going to punt or send it to a committee. Disappointing.
Here are other takes, by Jeffrey Rosen and Geoffrey Stone and John Cassidy.
Here’s the president’s text. You decide.
One response to “Surveillance state: What Obama should have said about NSA”
It’s incredibly depressing that as so many politicians assume “greater responsibilities” they stop being able to say “This is the shits” or “We shouldn’t be doing this” and instead “play along” with the usual nonsense. You see it with Obama, of course, but you see it on faculties, and on the governing boards of Little Leagues, and … oh, everywhere. It must have something to do with the human condition.
Maybe we need to train ourselves to applaud outspokenness even when the speaker is way wrong (or so we think). One of the attractions of, to name an absurd example, Sarah Palin … is that she seems to come right out and says whatever is on her mind. Of course we also have the right to point out that her remarks are generally absurd, but still, there’s something appealing about just letting fly.
But, at the same time, there’s something to be said for thinking about what you’re about to say, and taking other people’s opinions into consideration, and saying something “moderate.” And obviously one can take both ways of proceeding too far, both can be overdone.
But you’re completely right, Chris, about Obama’s remarks on changing our Surveillance State: not real, not particularly sincere, not enough.