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President Obama Embraces the False Choice

For those of you just joining us, there have been two big revelations about the NSA’s data-mining efforts since Wednesday, both reported by the Guardian.

The first [1]:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largesttelecoms [2] providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems [3], both within the US and between the US and other countries.

And the second [4]:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple [5] and other US internet [6] giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

A few things to keep in mind: Technically the latter only applies to foreign nationals living outside the U.S.—keeping tabs on which is the NSA’s job description—but it seems impossible [7] to separate one from the other. There are good reasons [8] to be skeptical [9] of the tech companies’ denials [10] that they cooperated. As for the collection of phone records, it’s probably safe to assume [11] that this is going on with most major providers [12].

In a press conference today, during which he took one question [13] from the press–“because  I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference”–the president tried to reassure Americans that the NSA is full of really good people who would never in a million years think about violating your Fourth Amendment rights, and that “You can’t have 100% security and then 100% privacy.” From the AP report [14]:

In his first comments since the programs were publicly revealed this week, Obama says safeguards are in place. He says nobody is listening to the content of phone calls. And he says the internet targeting is aimed at foreign nationals, not American citizens.

Obama says he increased some of the “safeguards” on the programs after taking office. And he believes they help his administration stop terrorist attacks.

From a political standpoint, these massive data collection efforts the administration’s stated commitment to ending the war on terror pretty hard to believe [15]. They also contradict the president’s former views—he sponsored the SAFE Act [16], which would have banned them, and talked frequently about the “false choice” of liberty or security during campaigns.

The New York Times‘ editorial board wrote that after these revelations, “the administration has lost all credibility,” a line they later narrowed to say “on this issue.” Everybody but the Wall Street Journal [17] seems upset about it.

Rep Sensenbrenner, author of the PATRIOT Act, said in a statement [18] that he’s “extremely troubled by the FBI [and NSA, here’s an explanation [7] why]’s interpretation of this legislation. While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses.” But he was the one who pushed for [19] the more expansive language, and Conor Friedersdorf tries [20] to get him to just admit he was wrong in the first place.

Further reading:

– Rick Perlstein with some comparisons [21] to operations Shamrock and Minaret.
– Glenn Greenwald et. al. on the history of the NSA
– Jesse Walker has some [22] “Whiz Kids” clips where the NSA makes an appearance, because everything else about this is depressing.
– DNI James Clapper takes issue [23] with the Guardian and the Post’s reporting, says leaks damage national security.
– Will Saletan says stop freaking out [24].
– David Freddoso on what should change [25]

Follow @j_arthur_bloom [26]

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#1 Comment By spite On June 7, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

Sadly this is not the doing of just one or two politicians, it seems that most Americans want “100% security” no matter the price, even if it means shredding the entire US constitution.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 7, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

The Wall Street Journal, the paper of, by and for the 1%, supports a domestic police state designed to ensure the security of their stakeholders – the elites who make the foreign policies that resulted in terrorist blowback against them – and us, who are viewed to support them.

The sweeping surveillance, really only the tip of the iceberg visible as yet, has already been used to target legitimate peaceful dissenters, drilling down into their lives in retaliation and chilling what used to be rights protected by the constitution.

All totalitarian and authoritarian societies enjoy at least a modicum of public assent to those who rule over them and what they do to the freedoms of those who dissent or are mistakenly suspected of dissenting.

So it now is in America, too.

#3 Comment By Labropotes On June 7, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

From WSJ transcript of Obama’s answer to Calmes’s question today:

“…what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks — if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation. So I want to be very clear. Some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so — nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.”

Later Obama calls the Metadata “topline data” as if there is underlying data.

As I read this, Obama appears to think that both the metadata and the actual audio are captured. He says they are not “looking” at the names and content. (Who said anything about content?) The metadata is sifted, and if something smells fishy, the intelligence community must ask a federal judge for permission to listen to the call. But it’s just a pattern in your call history that justifies a search… and they just happen to have a handy recording of all our calls. Weird.

#4 Comment By OurHeavenlyLoins On June 7, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

” it seems that most Americans want “100% security” no matter the price, even if it means shredding the entire US constitution.”

In this regard, this country has become one of nittering ninnies. But no president wants to be the one that has another 9/11 on their “watch”…

#5 Comment By Clint On June 7, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

NSA Whistleblower William Binney,
” But NSA has been doing all this stuff all along, and it’s been all the companies, not just one. And I basically looked at that and said, well, if Verizon got one, so did everybody else, which means that, you know, they’re just continuing the collection of this kind of information on all U.S. citizens.”

#6 Comment By Clint On June 7, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

James Bamford describes the subcontracting to Israeli firms for mass surveillance of U.S.-based electronic communications.

#7 Comment By Cocky Bovine On June 7, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

I’m not sure which is more amusing:

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s amazement that the Federal Government would take advantage of every single inch of leeway that his legislation gave to it…

…or the fingerpointing by both Team Red and Team Blue at each other’s most recent administrations, when this is but the latest signpost in the growth of the surveillance state that really kicked into gear in the aftermath of World War II.

#8 Pingback By Obama defends surveillance programs – USA TODAY On June 7, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

[…] If you can't trust government, we're going to have some problemsWashington ExaminerPresident Obama Embraces the False ChoiceThe American Conservative (blog)all 78 news […]

#9 Comment By WorkingClass On June 7, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

Why have the corporate media suddenly noticed the surveillance state? Alternative media have been talking about it for years. We are being set up for something. I don’t know what.

#10 Comment By William Dalton On June 8, 2013 @ 12:04 am

“The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.”

How is the content of an email, and the expectation of privacy therein, different from that delivered in hand by the U.S. Postal Service? Can the FBI seize mail sent to us by the Postal Service, without a warrant issued upon a showing of facts substantiating a reason to inspect that particular mail, if it comes from a foreign source? Were the Feds enabled to collect the contents of all telegrams sent during WWII to sift through them for evidence of espionage or terrorism? What are the precedents for this?

If Richard Nixon had had the tools available to him that are available to President Obama, there never would have been a Watergate break-in. He could have simply examined the phone records of the DNC to see who among suspected security leaks had been talking to them.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 8, 2013 @ 6:02 am

“In this regard, this country has become one of nittering ninnies. But no president wants to be the one that has another 9/11 on their “watch”…”

The ultimate trope or excuse, But . . .

Let’s see, “I don’t want another mall shooting so . . .”

This is all that pre-emption nonsense. The fact remains another 9/11 could take place. but given that it was a lucky strike it is unlikely. So many domestic security measures were ignored on the same day and the suspicious behavior about flying lessons and the concerns of the trainers went completely ignored. Failure to pass along information from agency to another —-

I have met people who can’t walk in certain neighborhoods without a visit to the police — and foreigners are not checked out because of ‘ color profiling issues’

Who is kidding who here. But that is how government works — scare you, provide a solution, when you question it — hrearken back to the fear that caused the solution suggested in which a response is ohhhh yeah, by default of fright instinct.

I am a huge fan of security. And in the face of what I think are routine securty breaches all the time . . . grrrrrrrrr, very bizarre. But the reality remains, how much fear and potential threat am I willing to allow scare me into a box?

Answer this one question. If in fact, things are so bad that I need to monitor the phone calls of such a large population — why haven’t they secured the borders? Wht weren’t the borders from Mexico and Canada immediately closed?

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 8, 2013 @ 6:13 am

Pres Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, well he probably does, ok he might have —-

“We don’t want the evidence to be a mushroom cloud.”

The same reasoning permeates the sphere of intellectuals and power brokers . . . it questions so many factors about the listeners intelligence and emotions all at once that failing to assent suggests some deficiency.

“What you want evidence of a society of a society transitioning to human mutation —- what are you a creationist?”

It’s based on the loaded question and that the answer must fit unsubstantiated theory or hypothesis.

Again, We don’t want another 9/11 do you?”

No, but as it resulted from a failure of our security professionals and had nothing to do with wire taps — because even if the calls had been intercepted made no sense to listeners . . . it was so coded — one thought it was adiscussion of a birthday. The conspirators assumed their calls were monitored or could be.

The failures were in front line security no pre-emptive phone calls.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 8, 2013 @ 6:14 am

” . . . kicked into gear in the aftermath of World War II.”

Interesting observation.

#14 Comment By Rambler88 On June 8, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

I’m wondering: just what is the difference between the “secret court” (which authorizes these moves) and a Star Chamber.

#15 Comment By TZ On June 8, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

Between Google and the NSA, paranoia is an understandable response.
Anyone (including Mr. Sensenbrenner) who is currently shocked and outraged clearly has not been paying attention for the past 12 years.
Maybe rolling back the surveillance state is an issue that the grassroots on both the Left and the Right can agree on, and can influence their representatives in government to implement changes.

#16 Comment By Joesnopy On June 8, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

Ok, people all this has been reported and taken to court. Please the American people should not be supprised. All anyone had to do was google Frontline NSA. It has all the details and more from 2007 so come on all the media is full of BS. This blog is also full of BS. Why did it know about but it seems like the media did not know. Come on America.