Obama reveals himself as a champion of the surveillance state

By Gene Healy – Washington Examiner –

On Friday, more than seven months after he professed to “welcome this debate” over National Security Agency spying, kicked off by whistleblower Edward Snowden, President Obama finally got around to debating. His speech at the Justice Department was a tour-de-force of petulance, dissembling, and phony piety about civil liberties.

The president is at least as fond of passive constructions as Chris “Mistakes Were Made” Christie. “Too often,” Obama said, “new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.” But before the Snowden revelations, the American public didn’t know that the administration considered all Americans’ call records “relevant” to terrorism investigations under section 215 of the Patriot Act–and Obama liked it that way.
Still, Obama pointed out, his review group on NSA surveillance found “no indication that this database has been intentionally abused.” Nor did it find any evidence that the program had been particularly useful. As the group’s report, issued in December, put it, information derived from bulk collection “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner” through other means.

The same goes for the president’s signature example of the 215 program’s hypothetical usefulness, which had been debunked by a review group member even before the speech. Had the program been in place, Obama implied, we might have caught a 9/11 hijacker who called an al Qaeda safehouse we were monitoring in Yemen. But as group member Richard Clarke told ProPublica, NSA didn’t need a call records database “to get the information they needed” — that was available through a traditional FISA warrant.

The 215 program, Obama insisted, “does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls.” The latter point is comforting only if you’re gullible enough to believe that the NSA has never heard of reverse telephone directories.

Moreover, there’s no “sharp distinction” between content and metadata. That’s what another member of the president’s hand-picked review group told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing last week. “There is quite a bit of content in metadata,” according to group member Michael Morell: “When you have the records of phone calls that a particular individual made, you can learn an awful lot about that person.”

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