As NY Times Attacks Obama, Records Declassified To Put NSA Program In Proper Perspective

Where was the New York Times when the Bush Administration birthed the Patriot Act? Now, in 2013, they’ve decided to take Obama to task for implementing it.  Image by weaselzippers.us @ BizPacReview

Where was the New York Times when the Bush Administration birthed the Patriot Act and let the NSA go nuts? Now, in 2013, they’ve decided to take Obama to task for implementing it. Image by weaselzippers.us @ BizPacReview

Oh, to be president. To be in a position of such responsibility, demand, trust and foresight. To be expected to solve problems, prevent problems, imagine problems that will need to be solved later and then solve them now… and do it all while making everyone in every group, faction, subculture, race, religion, creed, color, or political party happy. Can’t be done, can it?

But every president tries. We at least believe that. Unless you decide to believe that a president is, at his core, a Machiavellian, manipulative, conniving, amoral puppet-master out to ensnare his electorate into a web of entrapment and oppression, sucked dry of civil liberties and a presumption of privacy. Do we believe that about our current president? Some do… certainly we’ve heard from a lot of them over the years of Obama’s administration And now, it seems, venerable 4th Estate behemoth, The New York Times, does as well. Or at least enough that their Editorial Board has written a scathing editorial titled, President Obama’s Dragnet, in which they excoriate Obama in response to the recent reveal of the national security phone records program:

The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and over broad surveillance powers.

Based on an article in The Guardian published Wednesday night, we now know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency used the Patriot Act to obtain a secret warrant to compel Verizon’s business services division to turn over data on every single call that went through its system. We know that this particular order was a routine extension of surveillance that has been going on for years, and it seems very likely that it extends beyond Verizon’s business division. There is every reason to believe the federal government has been collecting every bit of information about every American’s phone calls except the words actually exchanged in those calls.

So, based on the article of another paper, they’ve decided to take a loud, public stand against the president. Hmmm. Here are just a few of the salient comments in response to the editorial:

“This collection of data has been going on in the seven years that the The Patriot Act has been in effect. It’s time to repeal that act and discuss whether we need or want to spend the money to collect and analyze all this data. Obama is not to blame for this mess. Those who passed and supported the Patriot Act are responsible for this ‘unintended’ consequence.”

“All this noise proves is that Americans want to have their cake and eat it. For right wingers who ordinarily would defend an action taken to boost security, there will be a sudden outbreak of love for civil liberties since it is Obama involved.”

“We are so schizophrenic! When there’s a terrorist attack, there are always retrospectively discovered clues which were ignored or not synthesized properly, and there appears a groundswell of criticism concerning poor intelligence. But when there are prospective attempts to gather information, here comes the groundswell in the opposite direction. It is not possible to perfectly conciliate these differences, but the advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches must be evaluated carefully and rationally, and we need to avoid kneejerk responses in either direction.”

“I’d rather have my personal information be known by a bureaucrat than be killed by a terrorist. I have nothing to hide. Only people who worry about this kind of stuff are crooks, libertarians, media insiders, and liberals. For the folks, it is the cost of living in the world we have, not the one we want.”

“It’s good to take the President to task over what seems an overreach of power, but I think part of the outrage stems from the fact that it comes from Obama. Seems that nobody is surprised or upset that President Bush started this policy.”

“Where was the NY Times when the laws were voted in beginning with Bush?”

Of course, there are just as many comments in fierce agreement with the NY Times; I’m not including them only because we know that drill; the heated rhetoric has reached oversaturation point, widely disseminated and zealously conspiratorial: our president is Satan, Stalin, Machiavelli, the sum of all evil, so on and so on. What was more interesting to me were the counterpoints; the comments of those who seem willing to look at the history of this situation (and as much as the right HATES when things are blamed on Bush, they really cannot erase the chronology of the Patriot Act), the nuances required of a president in balancing national security against civil liberties, and the general sense that President Obama is NOT twirling his mustache (I know he doesn’t have one…) while gloating over his oppression of the masses. Of course, if you hold to the notion that he is, and many people do, any and all nefarious intent can be applied to his actions… and they are. Even by the New York Times.

Curiously, or perhaps in purposeful timing, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made an “unusual late-night statement” Thursday night, taking his own strong stand against those who leaked the highly classified documents that outed the phone records programs in the first place, claiming it puts security at risk by alerting America’s enemies to the tactic, causing them, among other things, to change behaviors accordingly, making their intentions and potential planned actions harder to detect. From the Huffington Post:

“The unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” Clapper said of the phone-tracking program. [… ]

“I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use,” he said.

Of course it is, but the problem with the way information is processed in this country, by an electorate that has long proven its willingness to believe lies, dismiss truth, eschew nuance, scream conspiracy, and denounce fact, is that nothing is ever viewed on face value, on its sheer reality. Instead, lines are drawn, sides are taken, intractable positions are held. From there, based on party affiliation, one’s level of embrace of conspiracy memes, or their general half-empty/half-full philosophy of life, people often reject truth. Reject information as it is presented. Suspicion reigns, with eyes close, ears plugged and mouths opened.

As various members of Congress spoke out harshly against the phone records program (Rand Paul, R-Ky, called it an “astounding assault on the Constitution”), officials from Clapper’s office, as well as from the Justice Department, NSA, and the FBI, briefed 27 senators late Thursday in an attempt to clarify the fine-points of the program.

_The program is conducted under authority granted by Congress and is authorized by the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court which determines the legality of the program.

_The government is prohibited from “indiscriminately sifting” through the data acquired. It can only be reviewed “when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” He also said only counterterrorism personnel trained in the program may access the records.

_The information acquired is overseen by the Justice Department and the FISA court. Only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed, he said.

_The program is reviewed every 90 days.

Clapper said the Internet program, known as PRISM, can’t be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the U.S, and that data accidentally collected about Americans is kept to a minimum. [Source]

I laughed when I read the word “accidentally,” knowing full well that this verbiage will surely stir up conspiracy theorists to heatedly parse just what’s “accidental.” I can hardly blame them on that one!

But the President himself spoke out about this for the first time today, making what, to many, is the most elemental point:

“They help us prevent terrorist attacks,” Obama said. He said he has concluded that prevention is worth the “modest encroachments on privacy.”

Obama said he came into office with a “healthy skepticism” of the program and increased some of the “safeguards” on the programs. He said Congress and federal judges have oversight on the program, and a judge would have to approve monitoring of the content of a call and it’s not a “program run amok.”

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he said. “That’s not what this program’s about.”

Certainly civil liberties are essential to every American; our country was founded on the principle and we hold dear our rights to privacy in every area of our lives. But we are no longer in the world of the 17oos; we are in a world of sophisticated terrorist networks, thuggish criminals hell-bent on fulfilling zealous crusades; global enemies who have no compunction about inflicting mass destruction on a country once protected by muskets and bayonets. And far from the days of town criers and the Pony Express, we now have a brilliant, instant and international information network that allows communication between our enemies to be transacted in the blink of an eye. And it is in this world we expect our leaders to keep us safe. Can we reconcile the challenge of that?

It would seem many cannot. As one commenter put it, we cannot have it both ways; we cannot expect our leaders to leave no stone unturned to protect us from terrorists and those who would do us harm, then caterwaul when one of those stones is the accrual of phone records that might assist in identifying a planned attack. But still… we do.

Even The Guardian, which was the source many other media outlets’ information and opinion (including the New York Times), made the following point on which the Huffington Post extrapolated:

It does not authorize snooping into the content of phone calls. But with millions of phone records in hand, the NSA’s computers can analyze them for patterns, spot unusual behavior and identify “communities of interest” – networks of people in contact with targets or suspicious phone numbers overseas. [Emphasis added.]

The fact is, as many commenters on the NY Times editorial pointed out, the Patriot Act was birthed by the Bush Administration and most on the right not only supported it, but felt it was an essential tool to preventing another 9/11. It either has or  no other such attack was planned anyway… we’ll never truly know. But do we, as Americans, feel confident enough that it won’t happen again that we’d push against measures such as these in lieu of our privacy? Or, just as we’ve gotten used to taking off our shoes and subjecting ourselves to airport scans, can we accept that these times demand a personal sacrifice of some privacy for the greater good. as the President stated?

The NY Times editorial concludes with this:

We are not questioning the legality under the Patriot Act of the court order disclosed by The Guardian. But we strongly object to using that power in this manner. It is the very sort of thing against which Mr. Obama once railed, when he said in 2007 that the surveillance policy of the George W. Bush administration “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”

Perhaps, however, what the President discovered upon taking office is the fact of governing, not the presumption. Perhaps upon bearing the title and responsibility of President of the United States, he came to find the demand for hard choices, decisions and actions that, prior to the presidency, he had not been fully aware existed… just as none of us can presume to know the minutia, details, and sheer glut of expectation and responsibility a president faces every day in making those exact choices between “liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”

As for this president, the one the New York Times has decided to take to task, if one chooses to believe the man is, indeed, Satan/Stalin, one will see his intent as malicious. If, instead, one believes he is a moral, compassionate, but dedicated leader who understands the demand of his office and meets it as best he can despite choices that are not popular, choices that we, as constituents, may not fully understand or see the nuances of, then you’ll stand firm and take a temperate, hopeful view. Half-empty or half-full.

For what it’s worth, and despite the knee-jerk tendency of Republicans to kick Obama any chance they get, I’ll leave you with GOP attack dog Senator Lindsay Graham’s take on the whole thing:

“I’m a Verizon customer. I could care less if they’re looking at my phone records. … If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you got nothing to worry about.”

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