WASHINGTON — Five years into his presidency, Barack Obama presides over a national security apparatus that in many ways still resembles the one left behind by President George W. Bush. Drones are killing terrorism suspects, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, holds “enemy combatants” and the government secretly collects telephone records of millions of Americans.
This from a man who in 2008 ran as the anti-Bush candidate who would get the U.S. out of Iraq, put an end to torture and redefine U.S. policies abroad.
But even as he has ended the war in Iraq, changed interrogation standards and sought to build foreign alliances, the former constitutional law professor also has disappointed some allies by embracing, and in some cases expanding, the counterterrorism policies that caused Bush to run afoul of civil libertarians.
Over the past two days, news accounts have revealed that the government has collected millions of Americans’ phone records in the name of national security, and has conducted an Internet surveillance program that tracks people’s movements and contacts that the Obama administration says is aimed exclusively at non-citizens outside the U.S.
Both programs rely on the Bush-era Patriot Act, which Congress has since twice reauthorized with Obama’s support.
The disclosures come two weeks after Obama declared in a speech that when it comes to the nation’s security, “America is at a crossroads,” and he proposed a more targeted counterterrorism strategy.
But even while calling for a national debate over the appropriate balance between security and freedom, that speech, and the reports of phone and Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency, underscored that Obama, like Bush before him, has an overriding preoccupation about a terror attack on U.S. soil.
“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,” the president said in response to a question Friday during a health care event in San Jose.
“You know,” he added, “we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Obama supporters might be forgiven for thinking he would have had something else in mind.
Before becoming president, Obama unsuccessfully sought changes in the USA Patriot Act that would have placed restrictions on the very provision that his administration now uses to collect phone records.
The changes, proposed in a 2005 bill that Obama as a senator co-sponsored, would have required that “the records sought pertained to a terrorist or a spy or another agent of a foreign power,” Gregory Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said Thursday. “The surveillance that was revealed yesterday is of records that pertain to everyone else.”
“It’s disappointing , it’s troubling and it’s hard to justify given that alternatives that would protect both national security and civil liberties are available,” added Nojeim, a former legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Seeking to quell the outcry, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an unusual late-night statement Thursday saying that the records obtained are subject to strict court-imposed restrictions and that only a small fraction are actually ever reviewed. Hours later, Obama himself weighed in.
“You know, I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he said. “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.”