Jon Stewart once reacted to a Barack Obama speech by marveling that "at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."
On Friday, President Obama spoke to us about surveillance as though we were precocious children. He proceeded as if widespread objections to his policies can be dispatched like a parent answers an eight-year-old who has formally protested her bedtime. He is so proud that we've matured enough to take an interest in our civil liberties! Why, he used to think just like us when he was younger, and promises to consider our arguments. But some decisions just have to be made by the grownups. Do we know how much he loves us? Can we even imagine how awful he would feel if anything bad ever happened while it was still his job to ensure our safety? *
By observing Obama's condescension, I don't mean to suggest tone was the most objectionable part of the speech. The disinformation should bother the American people most. The weasel words. The impossible-to-believe protestations. The factually inaccurate assertions.
They're all there.
* * *
... I called for a review of our surveillance programs. Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate but not always fully informed way.
But Obama has always had it within his power to initiate a fully informed debate. The state secrets that he guards, rightly or wrongly, are the biggest obstacle to a fully informed debate. Love the leaks or hate them, they've indisputably made Americans, including some members of Congress, much better informed than they were before about NSA surveillance, not less informed. And as any student of the civil-rights era ought to know, debate need not be "orderly" to be salutary.
I'm also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness, because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation.
It's the way we do it, with open debate and democratic process.
But his surveillance politics and policy, whatever one thinks of it, has never been characterized by open debate. There are secret sessions conducted by Congressional committees -- and secret hearings conducted by FISA court judges -- where hugely consequential policy decisions are made. If the real world depends on the example of American openness, we are failing the world. The example we're setting is that it's okay for governments to secretly intercept the private communications data of all citizens. How would that work out in most countries? The official secrecy surrounding the NSA has already corroded U.S. democracy in real ways.
I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the program that collects telephone records. As I've said, this program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots, and it does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant. But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse.
What a sly formulation. It's true that Section 215 of the Patriot Act doesn't allow government "to listen to any phone calls without a warrant" -- and also true (for complicated reasons involving a variety of provisions, including Section 702, and much dubious wordplay) that the government does listen to the phone calls of innocent Americans who are not suspected of terrorism, often in a way that students of American history liken to "general warrant" Fourth Amendment violations. Sometimes, according to The Guardian and Senator Ron Wyden, no warrant is needed.