Spy Games & Double Standards
By Matthew Vadum
As details of President Obama’s massive domestic spying operation continue to dribble out into the public domain, the Left for the most part is quiet and content.
Left-wingers are unable even to entertain the idea that Obama, who billed himself on the campaign trail as a champion of civil liberties, is a power-mad authoritarian who views the Constitution as worthless parchment.
“no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”
But that was then when Obama was still just a senator.
The Obama administration’s spying is ostensibly aimed at combating al-Qaeda and protecting America from attack.
But today the relentless cries of “fascism!” we heard all throughout George W. Bush’s presidency are absent. There are no riots in the streets. No rowdy Occupy Wall Street-sponsored demonstrations. No candlelight vigils.
When news of Obama’s warrantless surveillance program on steroids broke this week, except for Al Gore, Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers, and a handful of the more utopian leftists, the Left has been largely silent on these abuses.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who turns 80 this month, seems to be suffering from retrograde amnesia, having tossed away her worries about the NSA program. The senator defended the program, which is much more far-reaching that anything Bush ever dreamed of, saying “I think people want the homeland kept safe to the extent we can.”
Just seven years ago, Feinstein angrily denounced President Bush for his warrantless surveillance program. “I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure.”
As recently as March, senior Obama administration officials denied the government was spying on large swaths of the American public.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point-blank, “Does the NSA collect any kind of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper replied, “No, sir … Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently, perhaps …”
Although it generated daily invective from the Left through his time in office, President Bush’s domestic surveillance regime was comparatively modest.
Bush’s program was certainly aggressive, but it was more narrowly tailored to capture terrorist communications. And when Bush experienced political blowback, he went back to the drawing board and created a new program with judicial oversight to assuage the concerns of civil libertarians.
What Obama is doing now is totally indiscriminate, a massive fishing expedition that gives huge swaths of American society the Big Brother treatment.
According to a classified order of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review published by The Guardian (UK), Verizon was directed to provide “on an ongoing daily basis” all call records for any call “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls” and any call made “between the United States and abroad.” The court granted the order to the FBI for a three-month period ending July 19.
“The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing,” the newspaper reports.
“Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.”
But the Obama administration has other programs it can use to spy on Americans and record their telephone calls.
A new one was revealed this week called PRISM. This secret court-approved program allows the NSA to tap directly “into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.” The nine companies mentioned in a top secret government document are Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.
Some time after the start of the Bush administration’s ambitious communications surveillance program, leakers gave details to reporters. Such programs operate within the confines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which Congress created following perceived government surveillance abuses in the 1960s and 70s. It imposed the general requirement that the government obtain warrants from courts before monitoring Americans’ communications.
In December 2005 a New York Times headline from an article detailing the extent of warrantless eavesdropping by the Bush administration screamed, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”
Times readers learned that months after the 9/11 attacks President Bush “secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.”
Observers disagreed on the constitutionality of the program that allowed the NSA to monitor telephone and email communications between parties in the U.S. and parties in foreign countries without court oversight when a party was thought to have connections to terrorism.
Left-wingers vehemently denounced the Bush effort as an unforgivable assault on civil liberties. The ACLU and the pro-terrorist law firm Center for Constitutional Rights filed lawsuits.
“This conduct is right in the strike zone of the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors,” said then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). Feingold said Bush was “almost thumbing his nose at the American people.”
“We as a Congress have to stand up to a president who acts like the Bill of Rights and Constitution were repealed on Sept. 11 .”
Then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said the NSA program “doesn’t uphold our Constitution.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Bush had overreached. “Unilaterally changing the law because the Vice President or president thinks it’s wrong, without discussion or change — that’s not the American way.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked four presidential scholars to send her, “as soon as possible,” their opinions about whether President Bush’s actions justified his impeachment.
By mid-2006 it was revealed that the NSA tried to keep records on a majority of telephone calls made within the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. In the process it amassed “the domestic call records of tens of millions of U.S. households and businesses in an attempt to sift them for clues about terrorist threats,” according to the Washington Post.
President Bush fought for his program and in September 2006 asked Congress for permission to continue the warrantless eavesdropping.
But after the disastrous election two months later in which Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress, President Bush pivoted and became more amenable to compromise on the issue. In January 2007 the Bush administration responded to political pressure and reversed course, announcing it would replace the NSA program.
By August that year Bush had signed into law amendments to FISA that gave the government greater authority to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign terrorism suspects’ communications in the U.S. The new program would be overseen by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.
As they expressed horror when Bush’s warrantless electronic surveillance program was revealed, many Democrats were similarly alarmed during U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s October 2007 confirmation hearing when he said that there may be situations in which the president could constitutionally override a federal law that required court approval for intelligence-related wiretaps.
A law enacted in 2008 gave telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from liability for carrying out government-requested wiretapping. The law was challenged in court. Late last year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a lower court ruling upholding the statute.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the revelation of the muscular NSA warrantless surveillance effort shows President Obama is worse on civil liberties than President Bush. “The bent towards authoritarianism is probably worse in this administration.”
Paul said the domestic spying program was an “astounding assault on the Constitution.”
“The irony is that people voted for President Obama hoping for something different,” Paul said. “That’s why a lot of people I think are disappointed in the president. They’re disappointed in him targeting reporters. There’s just a lot to be disappointed about.”
“I’ve been saying for a long time that we ought to obey the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Paul said. “I’m all for going after terrorists, I’m all for going after criminals, but I think you go to a judge and you ask for a warrant specified to a person. You shouldn’t look at millions and millions.”