Yesterday, the New York Times published a blistering editorial, titled "President Obama's Dragnet," which took President Obama to task for the massive amounts of data that the federal government routinely collects about our phone calls:
Within hours of the disclosure that the federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.
Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency’s phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability. The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. [Emphasis added.]
Shortly after it was published, the editorial, which had been called "damning," was toned down. I was fortunate to have snipped a copy of the original version which is displayed above. The softened version changed the highlighted sentence to "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue." That change makes a huge difference in meaning and tone. In making the change, which the Times has yet to disclose or acknowledge, the editorial board sacrificed its credibility for Obama's. One can only imagine the phone call between the editorial board and the White House (and maybe the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping).
We should not expect more from the Times. After all, when the Times first revealed the NSA terrorist surveillance program, it did so after sitting on the story for a year. Senator John Cornyn accused the Times of endangering American security to help James Risen sell his new book. And the Washington Post similarly took the Times to task.
Back in those days I wasn't particularly bothered by the NSA's secret program to intercept al Qaeda communications. I don't think the program described by Attorney General Gonzales would bother me much even today. According to Gonzales, President Bush authorized a program that made electronic intercepts of contents of communications only where one party to the communication is outside the United States. That program was limited to situations where there was a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication was a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda.
The untargeted and overbroad collection the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon revealed by The Guardian is a whole different matter that I cannot accept.
Obama disagrees. Today he defended his government's phone spying program.:
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 net, it was worth us doing.
Some other folks may have a different assessment of that, but I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society.
You can watch Obama defend his phone spying program in this video.
Two things about Obama's weak defense of his telephone spy program. First, we can not make choices about balancing security versus privacy if everything is top secret. Second, Obama said during his first inaugural address that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." How can he square that with what he said today?