The recent revelation that the National Security Agency has forced the nation’s largest telephone and internet providers to turn over records on hundreds of millions of calls by Americans is not disturbing because of the privacy issues at stake. What’s disturbing is that it requires us to second-guess how strong the executive branch has become under President Obama, and how he has used his power to his political advantage to such a degree that he poisons everything he touches and cannot be trusted with sensitive information.
Project PRISM, as it is known, allows the government to access Internet users’ search histories, file transfers, e-mail, chats, and other stored data. The public first became aware of the program via an article in the British newspaper The Guardian last Wednesday, and in the days following it emerged that almost every major telephone, Internet and social networking company in the U.S. was being made to comply with the government request.
As it happens, reporters revealed in 2006 that the Bush administration had also been accessing metadata on millions of phone records. In fact, then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama railed against Bush’s so-called “spying” on Americans, but it wasn’t until The Guardian’s article was published that the public learned that President Obama had continued and expanded upon Bush’s efforts.
Now the president is on record defending his agency’s expansion of the program—arguing that it helped thwart a terrorist attack in New York in 2009—despite the fact that many on the left, including The New York Times, the American Civil Liberties Union and many Democratic congressmen, are decrying the program.
The problem with the NSA’s program isn’t its surveillance activities, for which a reasonable case can be made, or the program’s ability to function after former NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked it to journalists.
Under a responsible administration, the NSA’s surveillance program would provoke debate but hardly grave concern. But with all the questions about how much high-level administration officials knew about the Internal Revenue Service’s improper targeting of conservative organizations, the Justice Department’s subpoenaing AP reporters’ phone and e-mail records and spuriously naming Fox News reporter James Rosen as a co-conspirator in a national security leak, and the possible al-Qaeda connections of those behind the terrorist attack at the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, it is clear that this is not a responsible administration.
Under Obama, the NSA’s intelligence-gathering capabilities—like other executive powers he has been given, and many he has not—should send chills down our spines.