Welcome to the era of Bush-Obama, a 16-year span of U.S. history that will be remembered for an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties and a disregard for transparency. On the war against a tactic — terrorism — and its insidious fallout, the United States could have skipped the 2008 election.
It made little difference.
Despite his clear and popular promises to the contrary, President Obama has not shifted the balance between security and freedom to a more natural state — one not blinded by worst fears and tarred by power grabs. If anything, things have gotten worse.
- Killing civilians and U.S. citizens via drone.
- Seizing telephone records at the Associated Press in violation of Justice Department guidelines.
- Accusing a respected Fox News reporter of engaging in a conspiracy to commit treason for doing his job.
- Detaining terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, despite promises to end the ill-considered Bush policy.
Even the IRS scandal, while not a matter of foreign policy, strikes at the heart of growing concerns among Americans that their privacy is government's playpen.
And now this: The Guardian newspaper reports that the National Security Agency is collecting telephone records of tens of millions of customers of one of the nation's largest phone companies, Verizon.
If the story is accurate, the action appears to be legal. The order was signed by a judge from a secret court that oversees domestic surveillance. It may also be necessary; U.S. intelligence needs every advantage it can get over the nation's enemies.
But for several reasons the news is chilling.
- Verizon probably isn't the only company coughing up its documents. Odds are incredibly strong that the government is prying into your telephone records today.
- Issued in April, the NSA order "could represent the broadest surveillance order known to have been issued," according to The Washington Post. "It also would confirm long-standing suspicions of civil liberties advocates about the sweeping nature of U.S. surveillance through commercial carries under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
- This appears to be a "rubber stamp," order, reissued every few months since 2001. As is the case with all government programs, the systematic snooping into your telephone records is unlikely to ever expire without public outcry.
- Congress is full of hypocrites. Liberals who criticized Bush are less incensed with Obama. Republicans who bowed to Bush are now blasting Obama. The next time your congressional representative criticizes Obama for curbing civil liberties, ask if he or she would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, the post-911 law that handed unfettered power to the intelligence and military bureaucracies. Most won't.
- The Bush-Obama White House hates transparency. President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, were justifiably criticized by Democrats (none more successfully so than Obama himself) for their penchant for secrecy. Obama promised that he would run history's most transparent administration. By almost any measure, on domestic and well as foreign policies, Obama has broken that promise.
It is the lack of transparency that is most galling about the security versus civil liberties debate under Obama, because it shows his lack of faith in the public. Americans know a high level of secrecy and dirty work is needed to keep them safe. Most trust their president. Many approve of his job performance.
Still, they expect and deserve an open discussion about how to fight terrorism without undermining the Constitution.
Obama started that conversation with a recent address on the drone program, media leaks and the need to move American off a constant war footing. It was a compelling and well-considered argument for the balance he is claiming to strike.
But he made the speech under pressure, and reluctantly. It only came amid new revelations about the drone program and the disclosure of newsroom spying (the Guardian may well be in Obama's sights next). Under Bush, the warrantless-wiretap program only stopped after it was publicly disclosed. In that way, the Guardian story is not a surprise, so why didn't Obama long ago acknowledge, explain, and justify such an intrusion into privacy?
Obama has promised to adjust the drone and leaks investigation policies, essentially acknowledging that his administration had gone too far in the name of security. Do you believe him?
One thing we've learned about the Bush-Obama White House is that words don't matter. Watch what they do.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.