The End of Hope and Change

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President Obama is poised to sign an extension of the PATRIOT Act -- and normalize Bush-Cheney national security policies

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It isn't strictly accurate to say that Barack Obama once cared about civil liberties violations in the PATRIOT Act -- he has actually raised detailed objections to the decade old legislation at least twice. In 2005, then-Sen. Obama signed a letter laying out specific concerns that stretched to almost six pages. The next year, the former constitutional law professor took to the Senate floor, where he congratulated his colleagues for "a real, open, and substantive debate about how to fix the PATRIOT Act," and encouraged them to keep up their efforts: "I urge my colleagues to continue working on ways to improve the civil liberties protections after it is reauthorized," he said.

President Obama has now stopped talking about the civil liberties violations he once knowledgeably identified. If all goes as expected, he'll soon sign a four year extension of the PATRIOT Act, quadrupling down on an earlier mistake. This is particularly notable due to the way this latest extension is being passed: Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid had promised a week long debate on the legislation so that abuses identified by civil libertarians could be addressed. The fact that Reid's word proved worthless means that Sen. Rand Paul's worthy amendments may or may not be considered depending upon his adeptness at procedural maneuvering.

Why should this matter to you?

Contrary to the misleading reassurances of PATRIOT Act apologists, some provisions of the legislation aren't merely likely to be abused by law enforcement in the future -- they've already led to civil liberties violations, many of them documented circa 2009 by the Justice Department. Through National Security Letters, for example, law enforcement is permitted to obtain sensitive information from the banks, phone companies and Internet service providers of any American citizen. The FBI doesn't need a warrant to request this private data, and the target of the snooping needn't even be suspected of any connection with terrorism! More than 6,000 Americans were spied on in this manner during 2009 (the most recent year data is available), and the federal government has itself documented flagrant FBI abuses. All that's missing is a desire to fix the problem. There are plenty of other objectionable PATRIOT ACT sections too: the "lone wolf" provision, roving wiretaps, Section 215 notices. All are worthy of study, especially since now the American people won't learn more about them through a Congressional debate.

President Obama's support for this latest re-authorization matters because it bears on a central promise of his candidacy. During Election 2008, he made it seem as though a vote for him would signify and end to the Bush Administration's excesses in the war on terrorism: its tendency to needlessly sacrifice civil liberties even when less intrusive measures were sufficient, its disdain for checks and balances on executive authority, its habit of using scare tactics to insist that national security legislation be passed quickly and without a debate. Hope. Change. Those were the slogans. They weren't about getting Osama bin Laden, nice as that was.

"I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never -- ever -- turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake," President Obama said as late as May 2009. "I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset -- in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval." In the same speech, he added that "I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government. I will tell the American people what I know and don't know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why." That promise has been broken as surely as the implicit and explicit pledges to close Guantanamo Bay, to treat detainees well, to refrain from wars of choice without Congressional authorization, and to stop abusing the states secret privilege.

President Obama's impending signature on a bill reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act matters because the next time this legislation comes up for debate in 2015, the man in the White House won't have campaigned on ending War on Terror excesses and have a mandate to do so. As much as any other single moment, this marks the bipartisan normalization of a post 9/11 mindset where the Fourth Amendment is basically ignored and excessive deference to law enforcement -- even when it's already been shown to result in abuses -- is the consensus norm.

Win or lose in 2012, a big part of Obama's legacy will be normalizing most of what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps if he hands the extraordinary power he has claimed for the executive branch off to Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, Democrats will look back on their behavior during this PATRIOT Act re-authorization with appropriate shame. But I doubt it. If there's one thing our politicians agree about it's that the phrase, "America needs it to stop the terrorists" ends most debates before they begin.

Image credit: Reuters 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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