COLUMN - Obama's overdue reckoning on secrecy

Fri Jun 7, 2013 4:34pm EDT

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By David Rohde

June 7 (Reuters) - All day Thursday, Washington officials from across the political spectrum scrambled to explain reports in the Guardian and Washington Post of unprecedented government collection of the phone records of Americans and the tracking of the Google, Facebook and Skype activities of Americans and non-Americans worldwide.

James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence, insisted in an unusual public statement that the phone programs did not involve the surveillance of American citizens. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, asserted the government needs the information to someone those who might become a terrorist. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking member and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, described the program as "meritorious" because it allows government to collect information about "bad guys."

President Barack Obama Friday defended his administration's unprecedented level of surveillance.

"When I came into this office," the president said, answering questions after a speech in California,"I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: Number one, to keep the American people safe, and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties."

The president can't have it both ways. On one hand, he says he is trying to scale down the "war on terror." On the other, he has increased the surveillance state whose only justification is to wage it. As al Qaeda weakens, surveillance should decreased, not increased.

Those Washington-centric explanations are not enough. Throughout President Barack Obama's presidency, liberal Americans accepted the argument that government would not engage in overreach.

Meanwhile, dizzying rates of technological change created unprecedented opportunities for government and corporate abuse - from drone strikes that make targeted killings politically easy to cell phones that automatically track our movements.

Despite the ubiquitous sharing of our life events, thoughts and interests on Facebook and Twitter, which makes our lives open electronic pages, the public accepted promises from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other technology conglomerates that the data they collect would not be misused.

All that changed Thursday. The debate now unfolding is long overdue and a vital civics lesson. There is too little awareness of corporate and government data mining. And far too few protections against its excesses.

In the political short term, Obama may be the biggest loser. This debate is the latest blow to an administration intent on making government seem competent, not oppressive. The metadata collection will strengthen a growing narrative of government overreach.

Consider recent headlines. CIA drones kill American citizens. Internal Revenue Service agents target Tea Party activists. The FBI collects the phone and email records of journalists it accuses of endangering national security. Those stories rightly cause a furor on the right and left of the political spectrum.

Fox News commentators, who have long warned of government overreach, cited the NSA disclosure as proof of "government gone wild". But Obama's real problem is that he is now losing the center and left.

The New York Times said Obama's promise that internal reviews of drone strikes, leak investigation and surveillance, which he declined to publicly describe, would prevent abuses was no longer acceptable. "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue," the paper said in a blunt editorial.

The more centrist Washington Post editorial page questioned why the phone record collection has been kept secret for seven years. They called for a clear explanation from the administration.

Thursday's responses did not cut it. Clapper said that the disclosure of the program "threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation."

I disagree. Terrorists already assume that the United States tracks their every phone call and online click. Militant groups have developed procedures to avoid detection.

Inside the United States, meanwhile, fear of the political damage a successful terrorist attack could cause is creating an overreaching security state. Any loss of life in an attack is horrific, but stopping determined individuals from carrying out an attack is next to impossible.

Our politicians use the false promise of total security as a justification for eroding our privacy.

"If we don't do it," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said on Thursday, "we're crazy."

Graham is wrong and both Republicans and Democrats are tone deaf on the issue. They do not understand how deeply government is distrusted outside Washington.

The efforts of Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and a few other congressional surveillance skeptics, including Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), should be lauded. The Patriot Act's standards for which communications logs can be obtained must be tightened.

In the coming weeks, a fierce debate is likely to emerge over the new American surveillance state. It's about time.

More transparency is crucial. We must develop clearer laws, procedures and systems for protecting our lives from terrorists but also from our government and corporations.

(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.)

(David Rohde)

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