Oh, really, Mr. President? Not even a little bit?
After a week of NSA defenders saying there must be a “tradeoff” between privacy rights and surveillance, the president, through his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, says that he doesn’t feel he has violated the privacy rights of Americans at all.
The administration has said the top-secret collection of massive amounts of “metadata” from phone calls – raw information that does not identify individual telephone subscribers, was legal and authorized by Congress in the interests of thwarting militant attacks. It has said the agencies did not monitor calls.
Asked whether Obama feels he has violated the privacy of Americans, McDonough said, “He does not.”
While he defended the surveillance, McDonough said “the existence of these programs obviously have unnerved many people.” He said Obama “welcomes a public debate on this question because he does say and he will say in the days ahead that we have to find the right balance, and we will not keep ourselves on a perpetual war footing.”
Revelations of the NSA’s broad monitoring of phone and Internet data has drawn criticism that the Obama administration has extended, or even expanded, the security apparatus the George W. Bush administration built after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“We owe it to the American people to have a fulsome debate in the open about the extent of these programs,” Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat a long-time critic of the surveillance programs, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Describing the surveillance overseen by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Udall said, “I just don’t think this is an American approach to a world in which we have great threats. My number one goal is to protect the American people, but we can do it in a way that also respects our civil liberties.”
McDonough said Congress authorized the programs as a way to thwart plots against Americans and that lawmakers should stay up to date on how they are run. The administration has said the program collected only “metadata” – raw information that does not identify individual telephone subscribers and did not monitor calls.
“The president is not saying ‘trust me.’ The president is saying I want every member of Congress, on whose authority we are running this program, to understand it, to be briefed about it, and to be comfortable with it,” he said.
It should be noted that McDonough said nothing about the internet surveillance program PRISM that did far more than gather “metadata.”
By their very nature, these surveillance programs violate our privacy. We did not give our permission for government to access this data — whether they can access content or not. And regardless of assurances that safeguards are in place that prevent snooping, the awesome potential of this technology to make a hash of our constitutional rights is easily seen. The very existence of these programs is a threat to constitutional liberty, and it is troubling that the president apparently doesn’t understand that.
We are past the point of taking anyone’s word for it. If the programs have to be so secret that no one can confirm our constitutional rights aren’t being violated, then they should be scrapped. Most of us are willing to allow government some leeway in collecting data — but not at the expense of privacy or our rights.