Don’t count on Congress to fix the assault on privacy
Column: Obama’s is like a Bush-Cheney administration all over again
US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping walk the grounds at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage in California on Saturday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
The acid that corroded George W Bush’s presidency was fear – spreading it and succumbing to it. You could see the fear in his eyes, the fear that froze him in place, after Andy Card whispered to W in that Florida classroom that a second plane had crashed into the twin towers. The blood-dimmed tragedy of 9/11 was chilling. But instead of rising above the fear, W let it overwhelm him.
He and Dick Cheney crumpled the constitution, manipulated intelligence to go to war against a country that hadn’t attacked the US, and implemented warrantless eavesdropping – all in the name of keeping us safe from terrorists. Americans want to be protected, but not at the cost of vitiating the values that make them Americans. That is why Barack Obama was so stirring in 2007 with his spirited denunciations of W’s toxic trade-offs. The up-and- coming senator and former constitutional law professor railed against the Bush administration’s “false choice, between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide”.
Now that we are envisioning some guy in a National Security Agency warehouse in Fort Meade going through billions of cat videos and drunk-dialling records of teenagers, can the Ministries of Love and Truth be far behind? “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” George Orwell wrote in 1984.
It was a bit of a shock to find out that No Such Agency, as the NSA is nicknamed, has been collecting information for seven years on every phone call, domestic and international, that Americans make. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the collection of data from Verizon, called the NSA “the crown jewel in government secrecy”.
The Washington Post and then Greenwald swiftly revealed another secret programme started under Bush, code-named Prism, that lets the NSA and the FBI tap Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, lifting audio and video chats, photographs, emails and documents in an effort to track foreign targets. The Post reported that the career intelligence officer who leaked the information was appalled. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.
Obama defended his classified programmes even as Greenwald spilled one more bequeathed from W: identifying targets overseas for potential cyberattacks. So much technological overreach.
Don’t count on Congress to fix the assault on privacy. In a rare bit of bipartisanship, driven by a craven fear of being seen as soft on terrorists, both parties have lined up behind the indiscriminate surveillance sweeps, except for a few outliers.
The president insists his surveillance programmes are “under very strict supervision by all three branches of government”. Hardly comforting given the federal government so rarely does anything properly. Obama says agents are not actually listening to calls, but as former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau told the New Yorker, the government can learn a vast amount by tracking “who you call, and who they call”.
The president calls the eavesdropping apparatus “modest encroachments on privacy”. Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was “Bush-Cheney lite.” He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the CIA not always aware who it’s killing with drones, an overzealous approach to leaks and the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.