President Barack Obama must decide which president he wants to be. Is he the president who will end the post 9/11 "perpetual war" and find the proper balance between protecting liberties and preventing terrorism, as he claimed in a speech on May 23? Or is he the president who defends undisclosed mining of all our phone records, along with an ever-expanding secret government and reprisals against journalists who attempt to bring this secrecy to light?
It's looking like Obama is opting for the latter option. Of course, as this president tends to do, he is trying to have it both ways.
On Friday after the revelation that the National Security Agency had been collecting call records from a Verizon subsidiary, and after the revelation that the NSA was accessing the servers of several Internet companies to collect various communications he defended the government's actions, blaming the furor on media "hype."
"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That is not what this program is about," the president said in comments to reporters in San Jose. "As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and duration of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might want to engage in terrorism."
Yet after that strong defense, Obama suggested the issue needs to be further discussed. "I welcome this debate and I think it is healthy for our democracy."
Which is it? Overhyped concerns about privacy? Or needed debate about the secret prying power of government?
The fact is Obama is the debate. He came to office promising to end the post-9/11 excesses of the Bush administration, yet he's tried and failed to close Guantánamo, and has presided over an expansion of what the Washington Post in 2010 called "Top Secret America." At that time, an estimated 854,000 people held top-secret security clearances and 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies were working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence.
In 2012, Obama had a chance to join Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall in raising concerns about the alarming scope of government surveillance. The two senators were bound by confidentiality agreements, so they couldn't detail their concerns, but now we know they were raising red flags about what has been exposed this week secret court orders that allow the NSA to mine phone call data from Verizon and presumably other carriers.
Obama now welcomes a debate, but we wouldn't be having it if activists such as Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian and journalists at the Washington Post hadn't brought these secrets to light. And as many suspect, the Justice Department may prosecute Greenwald for revealing the secret court order, or go after the Post to learn the identity of the disgruntled NSA employee who leaked the information.
When the Patriot Act was renewed, it allowed the government to seek secret orders from courts for "business records" from carriers such as Verizon. Many people assumed that authority would only be used for a particular terrorism investigation of a narrow set of people. It was never assumed it would be used to scan data for every Verizon customer.
Wyden, Udall and others deserve credit for trying to sound the warning bell. Obama can't have it both ways. He must decide whether he wants to join them.