Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

How Obama’s Data Dragnet Harms America Worldwide

Our reputation and relations with allies take a hit from the president's global snooping.
obama standing

With all the mindless anti-Americanism abroad, some Americans may be surprised that there is widespread admiration among foreign citizens and even foreign officials for our Constitution, including our Bill of Rights.

When I represented the U.S. as a Congressman in a visit to Lithuania before the implosion of the Soviet bloc, my colleagues Chris Cox and Dick Durbin joined me in bringing what we thought Lithuanians wanted: aspirin and blue jeans. Wrong! In far greater demand were the scores of copies of the Constitution and the Federalist that were almost torn from the hands of Congressman Cox (who had brought them) by citizens and aspiring officials.

Later, as a U.S. Ambassador at Large on Modern Slavery visiting over 60 countries, both friendly and less so, I found foreign citizens eager to discuss our Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the places to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Foreigners were surprised, then, when they learned that the Obama administration was collecting phone and email data on millions of its own citizens. They were shocked when they learned that the Obama administration was collecting data on millions of foreign citizens and tapping into conversations of friendly governments in the European Union offices, at the UN, and in 39 embassies of nations who consider themselves friends of the United States. And all this was done in a proceeding where the Obama administration was the prosecutor, judge, and jury.

Foreigners, particularly Europeans, wondered: what was the “probable cause” stipulated in America’s venerable Fourth Amendment? National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s argument that, in essence, we were collecting an ocean of data to catch a terrorist fish was ridiculed. By this standard, foreigners realized that the NSA could spy on everyone on the theory that some robbery, murder, or some other crime might be stopped.

This led the conservative German chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee to state: “the spying has reached dimensions that I did not think were possible for a democratic country… [America] has lost all balance—George Orwell is nothing by comparison.” When your friends compare your government to the totalitarian state depicted in 1984, you have a problem.

Of course, this leads to Clapper’s second argument, which in essence is, “What’s the big deal? Everybody does it.” As Philip Giraldi has pointed out, some governments do spy on their allies and some don’t, but America has done it on an unprecedented scale. What the “everyone does it” argument totally misses are the principles America stands for that have made us the “leader of the free world,” whatever policies the U.S. or individual allied governments may pursue. Sure, some of our allies have disagreed with us before, on Vietnam or Iraq for example. These disagreements have focused on the degree to which we should use military means to extend democracy. Sending troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein is one thing; spying on millions of Germans—not to mention Americans—is another. Spying on the European Union and friendly embassies from Italy to Japan is considered by the man in the street, especially in Western Europe, to be despicable. The typical foreigner, I predict the next opinion polls will show, does not just disagree with America’s electronic spying but also is gravely disappointed that the home of the Bill of Rights has betrayed its ideals, the very ideals to which they themselves aspire even if their own governments do not always achieve them. Foreign favorability ratings of our President and our country, I predict, will sink to new lows.

Until now I have always believed that low foreign favorability ratings for America reflected envy at the inevitable exercise of military and economic power. But now we have a game changer. Envy is not driving foreign opinion, nor disagreement about how to promote democracy, but rather dismay that the beacon of the free world is no longer a beacon. Of course, leaders of countries like China and Russia are vilifying us, but on a recent trip to Russia I discovered that anti-Putin activists who have previously held us up as an example are wincing. The reason Western European leaders of all political persuasions are demanding public hearings is that while they may suspect or even know their own governments have spied on friends on a smaller scale, their citizens are in an uproar.

The outrage of the European man on the street is driving leaders who wish this issue would go away to call for the delay of negotiations on a free trade agreement and cancellation of information sharing on banks and airline passenger data. Previous inter-ally policy differences on Iraq or Vietnam never led to threats or refusals to cooperate on matters of mutual interest.

What is particularly puzzling is the reaction of the conservatives who have been rightly outraged by the IRS, the pursuit of the Associated Press and Fox News, and executions by presidentially ordered drone attacks on American citizens. But here, excepting leaders such as Rand Paul, there has been a strange silence and even a rush by congressional leaders to support Obama. Maybe it is the incantation of the words “national security,” as if this justifies any intrusion in our lives and the lives of our allies, despite the deaths from terrorist attacks last year failing to exceed the deaths caused by falling television sets. Maybe it is because this data-collection program—although not its size or spying on European trade offices—originated during the Bush administration. Somehow during the last campaign I did not notice any reticence on the part of Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders to criticize our former president.

This sudden reticence has persisted despite the almost inane defenses put out by the Obama administration. It’s not just that with this president, anything goes in the name of national security. His National Intelligence Director James Clapper has admitted lying to Congress and the American people last March when he claimed NSA did not engage in a wide data collection effort. We have the president calling for a national discussion of the balance between national security and civil liberties—but only after his top aide was caught in a cover up. Finally, we have the president responding to foreign fury with a lame official statement that “we will respond appropriately through our diplomatic channels.”

What should President Obama do, besides leading discussions and using diplomatic channels? An apology for neglecting the importance of the Fourth Amendment would help, but the president is too proud for that, so the most we can probably hope for is a public review and setting up of publicly known ground rules for spying on ourselves and our allies.

Maybe Republican leaders will stop defending President Obama when they read the results of the latest Quinnipiac poll that shows genuine American concern for national security, while also showing that vast majorities of all voters, including Republicans, regard Edward Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a “traitor.” We can’t expect all Republican leaders to have the courage of Rand Paul. But taking on a President whose credibility has been damaged so thoroughly, or at the very least lapsing into silence on the issue, will lay the groundwork for coming campaigns where we can delightfully recall the good old days when the U.S. was held in relatively high esteem during the Presidencies of Reagan, Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and, yes, George W. Bush.

More importantly, conservatives can seek to reverse the trend towards an Orwellian state under President Obama and show those at home and abroad that we take the Bill of Rights seriously.

John R. Miller is a former Congressman and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a former U.S. Ambassador at Large on Modern Slavery, and is Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.



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