The Corner

President Obama on Privacy and Civil Liberties: A Retrospective

In light of the president’s Friday’s statement on the NSA surveillance controversy, National Review Online takes a look back on some of the president’s previous statements on Americans’ right to privacy:

1. December 15, 2005, Senate floor statement on the PATRIOT Act: 

This is just plain wrong. Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is one thing – and it’s the right thing – but doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.

2. February 16, 2006, Senate floor statement on the PATRIOT Act Reauthorization:

Soon after the PATRIOT Act passed, a few years before I ever arrived in the Senate, I began hearing concerns from people of every background and political leaning that this law didn’t just provide law enforcement the powers it needed to keep us safe, but powers it didn’t need to invade our privacy without cause or suspicion.

3. May 25, 2006, Senate floor statement on the nomination of General Michael Hayden to the directorship of the CIA:

Over the last six months, Americans have learned that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans without judicial approval. . . .

We don’t expect the president to give the American people every detail about a classified surveillance program. But we do expect him to place such a program within the rule of law, and to allow members of the other two coequal branches of government — Congress and the Judiciary — to have the ability to monitor and oversee such a program. Our Constitution and our right to privacy as Americans require as much. . . .

Every democracy is tested when it is faced with a serious threat. As a nation, we have to find the right balance between privacy and security, between executive authority to face threats and uncontrolled power. What protects us, and what distinguishes us, are the procedures we put in place to protect that balance, namely judicial warrants and congressional review. These aren’t arbitrary ideas. These are the concrete safeguards that make sure that surveillance hasn’t gone too far. That someone is watching the watchers. . . .

We need to find a way forward to make sure that we can stop terrorists while protecting the privacy, and liberty, of innocent Americans. We have to find a way to give the president the power he needs to protect us, while making sure he doesn’t abuse that power.”

4. September 27, 2006, Senate floor statement on the Habeas Corpus Amendment:

That is the true genius of America — a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door.

5. October 30, 2007, Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC:

What we cannot continue to do is operate as if we are the weakest nation in the world instead of the strongest one, because that’s not who we are. And that’s not what America has been about historically, and it is starting to warp our domestic policies, as well. We haven’t even talked about civil liberties and the impact of that politics of fear, what that has done to us in terms of undermining basic civil liberties in this country, what it has done in terms of our reputation around the world.

6.  December 24, 2007, “Right vs. Security: Candidates take stance” Des Moines Register:

When I am president, there will be no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war.

7. June 20, 2008, Campaign Statement on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act:

Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders.

That is why last year I opposed the so-called Protect America Act, which expanded the surveillance powers of the government without sufficient independent oversight to protect the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans.

8. June 25, 2008, press conference:

QUESTION: Senator, last — last January, you pledged to support a filibuster of a warrantless surveillance bill that included retroactive immunity for telecommunications. Last week, the House passed a bill that effectively gives the telecoms that immunity. You said would support it.

In explaining the change, you said it was — you were talking — it was in light of the security threats facing the country.

Can you explain how the security threats facing the country are any different today than they were in January, when you said you would support a filibuster?

OBAMA: Well, the bill has changed. So, I don’t think the security threats have changed. I think the security threats are similar.

My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people. I do want accountability and making sure that, as I have said before, somebody’s watching the watchers, that you don’t have an administration that feels that it can make its own determinations about when warrantless wiretaps are applicable without going through a FISA court. . . .

I would be happy with a system that discloses what’s happened and make sure that we prevent violations of the American people’s privacy, even if the phone companies are held harmless.

The issue was, can we get to the bottom of what’s been taking place, and, most importantly, do we have safeguards going — in place going into the future so that American civil liberties are not being violated?

9. July 3, 2008, “Response from Barack on FISA,”

In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I’ve said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people.

10. February 23, 2012, Introduction to “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights“:

 Americans have always cherished our privacy. From the birth of our republic, we assured ourselves protection against unlawful intrusion into our homes and our personal papers. At the same time, we set up a postal system to enable citizens all over the new nation to engage in commerce and political discourse. Soon after, Congress made it a crime to invade the privacy of the mails. And later we extended privacy protections to new modes of communications such as the telephone, the computer, and eventually email.

Justice Brandeis taught us that privacy is the ‘right to be let alone,’ but we also know that privacy is about much more than just solitude or secrecy. Citizens who feel protected from misuse of their personal information feel free to engage in commerce, to participate in the political process, or to seek needed health care. . . .

Never has privacy been more important than today, in the age of the Internet, the World Wide Web and smart phones. In just the last decade, the Internet has enabled a renewal of direct political engagement by citizens around the globe and an explosion of commerce and innovation creating jobs of the future. Much of this innovation is enabled by novel uses of personal information. So, it is incumbent on us to do what we have done throughout history: apply our timeless privacy values to the new technologies and circumstances of our times. . . .

One thing should be clear, even though we live in a world in which we share personal information more freely than in the past, we must reject the conclusion that privacy is an outmoded value. It has been at the heart of our democracy from its inception, and we need it now more than ever.



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