When a man has been in the Oval Office for a few years, does he start to buy his own balderdash? In an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose that aired Monday, President Barack Obama asserted that the debate on National Security Agency intelligence gathering “is a healthy thing” and “a sign of maturity” and that “this debate would not have taken place five years ago.”
Has the president lost his memory? This debate raged throughout the 2008 presidential race. By the time he was elected, Obama’s 2007 rhetoric about the “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide” was a year old.
Obama also unloaded his complaint about conservatives who weren’t worried about intelligence surveillance when George W. Bush was president. Is there no fearless handler to tell his majesty that the debate on surveillance isn’t new, that what’s new is his position?
Or that he’s repeating himself? In San Jose, Calif., on June 7, Obama said: “I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.”
This week, Justice and intelligence officials faced Congress to defend surveillance programs that allow snooping on foreign communications and the federal government to hoard “telephony metadata.” They argued that the programs helped prevent as many as 50 “potential” terrorist attacks, 10 of them domestic, including a 2009 plot to blow up the New York subway.
Skeptics want proof; many argue that other sources exposed or could have exposed would-be terrorists. Before the hearings, Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement, which said they had seen no evidence that the government’s “dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence.”
Even Obama supported Udall and Wyden’s take when he admitted to Rose, “We might have caught (the would-be subway bomber) some other way.”
Like most Americans, I want the government to have the tools it needs to uncover terrorist plots. But the president himself isn’t sure the NSA needs America’s phone records. Between the Boston Marathon bombings and Edward Snowden’s revelations, there’s reason to suspect that the feds’ supersize surveillance is too big to run well.
It’s too big for the big shots to get their stories straight. In March, Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whether the government was collecting data on millions of Americans. Clapper answered, “No, sir, not wittingly.” After the Snowden leaks revealed otherwise, Clapper told MSNBC he had replied in what he considered “the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner.”
As for the Department of Justice, it searched phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors and Fox News’ James Rosen and Rosen’s parents. Attorney General Eric Holder approved a document that charged Rosen as a “co-conspirator” in a national security leak.
Then he forgot. In May, Holder told the House Judiciary Committee that “potential prosecution of the press” is not something that he’s “ever been involved in.”
The Obama administration is keeping records of everyone’s phone calls and targeting reporters. Maybe this is a debate that wouldn’t have happened five years ago.