Politics & Policy

Obama’s Belated Defense of the NSA

Why didn’t the president give this speech seven months ago when it would have counted?

It is very hard to take President Obama seriously. At Friday’s big surveillance speech, after five years of Big Government–orchestrated Constitution shredding, he looked the American people in the eye and explained that, as monitoring technology has evolved over the centuries, our nation has always “benefitted from both our Constitution and traditions of limited government.” While your head was still spinning, another whopper: After five years of whimsically “waiving,” ignoring, and unilaterally rewriting congressional statutes, he bleated that “our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends upon the law to constrain those in power.”

Of course, from the man who repeatedly vowed that you could keep your health-insurance plan, all the while scheming to eliminate your health-insurance plan, we’ve come to expect this disconnect between rhetoric and reality. What makes President Obama so hard to take seriously is not just the lying. It is that he does not take his job seriously. Consider the great “metadata” controversy, the focal point of yesterday’s speech.

It has been seven months since Edward Snowden’s first felonious leaks — seven months of firestorm over the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone-record information on virtually all Americans. During that time the program has been hysterically slandered by critics on the left and right — the libels aided and abetted by legislators who’ve known for years exactly what the NSA was doing and yet feigned shock over Snowden’s “revelations.” (I use the mock quotes in a nod to Representative Jerrold Nadler (D., Upper West Side), who conceded last June that, when it came to the NSA’s data collection, Snowden revealed nothing that hadn’t been well known and hotly debated for seven years.)

It has been claimed, spuriously but relentlessly, that the NSA was massively spying on U.S. citizens, systematically tracking their phone calls, e-mails, and movements. This narrative has solidified into conventional wisdom. Americans widely believe that they are on the government’s radar, their every conversation eavesdropped on. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

As someone who used to work the legal end of national security and who is not exactly a notorious Obamabot, I am frequently invited to speak to conservative audiences about surveillance programs. I make it a habit of asking, “How many of you know that the NSA doesn’t know who you are? That they only collect your phone number, not your name or address or anything that would actually identify it as your phone number?” There is always genuine surprise, just as there is about the fact that phone calls are not being monitored; about the fact that data is only being collected, not analyzed — except for a fraction of phone numbers reasonably suspected of belonging to those with ties to terrorism, and so tiny that to call it infinitesimal seems an overstatement; about the fact that there is extensive, rigorous oversight of the NSA program by Congress and the FISA court. This is not a unilateral Obama-administration production like siccing the IRS on the Tea Party.

But out-to-pasture prosecutors in coffee klatches do not a bully pulpit make. With an important national-defense program on the ropes, only presidential leadership could make a difference. Obama would have to skip a fundraiser or two, or perhaps just play the front nine one day, and do what he does best: read a speech. Except this time, the speech could have the unusual added benefits of being succinct and true.

Instead, the Obama administration gave us . . . silence. Oh, the president offered a fleeting, tepid defense of the program when the controversy first erupted — leery of provoking his base while it was canonizing Snowden. And NSA chief Keith Alexander was dispatched to testify on Capitol Hill. Alas, General Alexander, an admirably straight shooter, proved to be a less than compelling communicator. The argument adduced to defend the collection of bulk data — the government’s amassing of hundreds of millions of records pertaining to innocent Americans in order to find a handful of jihadists — was less than helpful: He contended that piling hay into a stack somehow makes it easier to find the needle.

This now becomes especially maddening. To preserve the NSA program — i.e., to shore up public support for an effort, based on a Bush-era statute passed with strong bipartisan majorities that enables our government to map jihadist cells without posing any real threat to privacy — all President Obama needed to do last spring was say what he said yesterday:

This program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls — meta-data that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.

Obama elaborated that the program fills a critical intelligence void that led, in part, to the failure to interrupt the 9/11 plot. Had the NSA program been in place, the intelligence community would have known that suicide-hijacker Khalid al-Midhar was already in San Diego — not in some overseas outpost — when he was in contact with a known al-Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. The program is not for spying on Americans; it is for exposing the alien terrorists in our midst. Moreover, the president added:

The program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead — phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes. The [panel I commissioned to investigate the program] turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.

This was the brake the freight train needed half a year ago, before it ran away. The NSA’s record gathering is not Obamacare, Benghazi, or the IRS scandal, webs of administration deceit and stonewalling. It is a rigorously examined Bush-era counterterrorism effort. If the president had given this part of Friday’s speech back when it mattered last June, the public would have seen that his account of the program matched the account provided by such a respected conservative as former federal judge Michael Mukasey, who, as President Bush’s attorney general, was intimately familiar with its boundaries and civil-liberties safeguards.

Obama, instead, refrained from vigorously defending the program. He voted present while its detractors moved in for the kill. We will live with the consequences. He announced Friday that the program will be overhauled in some still undetermined manner — the president tap-danced on that one yesterday, essentially telling us to check back with him in late March. And in a mind-boggling concession to irate progressives who want the program dismantled, Obama decreed yesterday that every person on Planet Earth, no matter where located, now has privacy rights against surveillance by American intelligence services. While our spies are hamstrung, no word yet on when Russia, China, Iran, and similarly upstanding global exemplars will be reciprocating.

So it goes, this toxic mix of passive unseriousness and active harm. But not to worry: Only three more years left.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.


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