President Barack Obama is more right than wrong in his embrace of massive data collection to help prevent terrorist attacks, but watch out, fellow Americans. Privacy in our land is going poof, this particular program has potential for grave abuse, and here is an administration that too often wanders off the ranch as ideology urges it forward and incompetence says OK.
The program in question grew out of the George W. Bush-era Patriot Act that used to leave liberals trembling, and still affects some that way — although not Obama. While once publicly anxious about the surveillance it permitted, he signed its reauthorization. He also accepted indefinite detention, grew lax on closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and continued sending terrorist prisoners overseas.
What happened? I think reality happened. I think experts in national security showed him how anti-terrorist hesitancy could cost us a city or two or three, and he chose not to make that his legacy. Did his conversion go too far? I think an expanded drone program went beyond what was necessary, as it took innocent lives while further alienating populations whose support we need. Lately, Obama talked about revising attack criteria, as much as admitting the program had gone awry.
These recently exposed spy-on-ourselves programs — efforts that should have been publicly voted on by a Congress sadly deficient in its oversight responsibilities — strike some as excessive as our Washington overlords grab the phone records of millions of us. A calming requirement is that close examination of these records is forbidden, minus signals of a threat and court agreement. A disturbing fact is that you have to look no further than the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice or the White House itself to discern how easily the government dismisses such requirements.
More we learn, worse it gets
The more we learn about this IRS business of picking on conservatives for the transgression of being conservative, the worse it gets. At first it was passed off as slipshod scurrying by underlings trying to keep up with impossible duties. Disclosures since then point to political purpose, higher-ups calling the shots and injury that goes beyond denial of legitimate tax breaks to harassment.
In tracing leaks of classified information — a justified investigation of possible treason in some cases — the Department of Justice ignored its own rules about intimidating our watchdog press, no one overreaching more than Attorney General Eric Holder. In recusing himself from the Justice Department’s decision on whether to search phone records, Holder dodged clearly specified responsibilities that had been spelled out in order to avoid insufficiently discriminating probes. Then, after plenty of time to inform himself, he pleaded ignorance. It later turned out he had given the thumbs-up for a nasty investigation of a Fox News reporter.
Privacy counts, as our founders affirmed in enacting the Fourth Amendment to restrict law enforcement searches, and as most of us likewise affirm in our sense of a preciousness that gets lost if everything about us is public. We’re getting there, though. Cellphone cameras record our every move. The Internet already displays information that many would rather not be seen. Every other devious dodo with a keyboard or video recorder is pretending to be a save-the-world, tell-all journalist. The Supreme Court is letting cops take DNA samples short of court convictions. The IRS is checking your health care. Airport X-ray machines are peering through your clothes. And more, much, much more.
Now we get this roundup of hordes and hordes of data, any part of which can be investigated with a technological snap of the fingers. We may still be protected enough if the government stays within the law, but will it? And do you ever get the idea that while author George Orwell got the year wrong, he was understating things in his novel “1984” when he had scrutinizing TV sets in every home?