Americans Deserve a Debate Between Security and Privacy

It’s safe to say that President Obama’s second term is off to a rocky start. Between the Benghazi mistruths, the IRS’ misdeeds, the AP and Fox News investigations, and now, the admitted snooping into Americans’ phone records, it has been a less than stellar second act for the one-time golden boy of politics.

Then again, is it really safe to say any of that? After all, if recent news is any indication the Obama White House is deft at making life harder for those who disagree with it. Because if there is a worrisome thread woven throughout the past few week’s headlines it is that President Obama values, almost above all else, controlling the message. In Benghazi they altered the talking points to fit the narrative that Obama was successfully waging the war on terror and had made the right call in Libya. In the IRS scandal the Administration specifically targeted the Tea Party and other conservative groups who threatened to undermine the Administration’s progressive agenda. In the AP and Fox News stories the White House intimidated the press from pursuing government whistle blowers. And now, there are revelations that the federal government is collecting meta-data on our electronic communications, assuredly to stop terrorism, but with the certain side-effect of making everyone question whether the government is listening. And perhaps that wouldn’t be troubling if President Obama’s recent track record expressed a desire to act with political motives.

The Washington Post reports:

“The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping 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, according to a top-secret document obtained by the Washington Post.

. . . Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be gross intrusion on privacy. ‘They quit literally can watch your ideas form as you type,’ the officer said.”

The Obama Administration spent most of Friday defending the intrusion into the privacy of Americans. In a statement, the administration pointed to safeguards, including “extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons.”

But the Washington Post’s investigation finds those safeguards are more like suggestions. Despite efforts to identify “selectors” in an attempt to narrow the scope of the searches to a target’s “foreignness,” they are only designed to produce 51 percent accuracy. And more importantly, the training materials leaked to the Post show that any accidental collection of American data is “nothing to worry about.”

Sensing that the press statement would not be enough to calm fears, Mr. Obama sought to reassure an increasingly skittish public.

“No one is listening to your phone calls,” Obama insisted on a trip to California to meet with President Xi Jinping of China. “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest problem with this scandal. We were prevented from having a dialogue between the benefits of national security interests and the concerns of diminished privacy because the whole program was kept secret. The question is why. And as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes, Americans might not like the answer:

“Why did the surveillance have to be kept secret? If so much information is being gathered about almost everyone to figure out patterns, then it’s not as though you’d be tipping off a particular target that we were on to him. . . I can see why the government might want to keep this data-mining program secret to avoid a political backlash, but that is of course not a good reason for concealing it. Is there a better one?”

With so many scandals bursting at once, all of which center around potential federal government overstepping its bounds, Americans deserve good answers. And politics is not a good answer.