Feature

Obama: How a Bush critic came to support surveillance

The president promised to roll back the intrusive security measures of the Bush-Cheney administration. What changed?

This is not the man Americans thought they were electing, said Ron Fournier in NationalJournal.com. When Barack Obama was running for president, he denounced the Bush-Cheney administration for its intrusive, post-9/11 surveillance of U.S. citizens, and made “clear and popular promises” to roll back those excesses. In his inaugural address, Obama memorably said, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals.” But that was then. Americans have now learned that Obama’s National Security Agency has been regularly collecting data on all of our phone calls, and selectively siphoning off user information from Google, Facebook, and other major Internet companies as well. When it’s politically convenient, said Walter Shapiro in Yahoo.com, Obama can still “talk like Rand Paul,” passionately defending the sacred American values of liberty and privacy. But behind closed doors, he “governs like Dick Cheney.”

I know what changed Obama’s mind, said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. He “got elected president.” In that role, he’s been briefed on specific threats to our national security “in hair-raising terms on a daily basis.” Unlike the ivory-tower liberals who are now so disappointed in him, Obama “grew up,” and realized that the security benefits of broad data-mining programs far outweigh the negligible cost to our freedom and privacy. Back in 2008, said Patrick Radden Keefe in NewYorker.com, Cheney himself predicted exactly this transformation. Shortly after Obama was elected, the lame-duck VP said that for all Obama’s criticism of President Bush’s surveillance policies, “once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, they will appreciate some of the things we’ve put in place.” Cheney’s prediction sounded “cynical and self-serving” at the time. “Now it seems prescient.”

Obama’s “newfound realism” is to be welcomed, said James Taranto in WSJ.com, but why doesn’t it extend to other national security measures? If there is still a need to look for telltale patterns in phone calls in and out of the country and to snoop on jihadists’ Facebook pages, then why did this president just a few weeks ago call for an end to the War on Terror? Obama’s “trying to have it both ways,” said David Rohde in Reuters.com. He wants to be the president credited for undoing the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years. But since he believes his heart is pure, he also wants unfettered authority to order drone strikes and secretly monitor communications. Obama’s first impulse was the right one. As the al Qaida threat recedes, he should be dismantling the Orwellian surveillance architecture of the Bush era, “not regularizing and legitimizing it.”

Why is anyone surprised that Obama is no civil libertarian? said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. Despite some occasional lofty rhetoric, Obama has always bought into “the elite, bipartisan Beltway consensus” on surveillance and national security. As a senator, he voted for a 2008 amendment that expanded the NSA’s authority to snoop on Internet activity. Since taking office, he has “vastly expanded drone use overseas,” secretly approved the killing of U.S. citizens abroad, and “declared war” on leakers and whistle-blowers who have brought his secret programs to public attention. In matters of secrecy and executive power, in short, Obama has behaved exactly like every U.S. president of the modern era. “This isn’t the fourth term of the George Bush presidency,” as so many of Obama’s supporters are now complaining. It’s “more like the 16th term of the Eisenhower presidency.”

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