In 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a foreign policy speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in which he promised to curtail government surveillance of American citizens who are not suspected of a crime.
Obama was 45 years old, optimistic, and barely had any gray hair when he told the audience that George W. Bush’s practices, like warrantless wiretapping, “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.”
He promised: "I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom," adding, “No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists.”
Flash forward to today, and that choice isn’t so “false.” Obama, now 51 and with more gray hair, has not only embraced that balance he previously rejected, but seems to be pushing even harder in the direction of security.
Following reports of a secret surveillance program that allows the National Security Agency to obtain millions of Americans’ phone records and another that allows the government to tap into the servers of nine leading Internet companies, Obama defended the government’s practices. He insisted the country must strike a balance between keeping Americans safe while also meeting privacy concerns. “You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Perhaps Obama’s new struggles represent not a hypocrisy, but a man—an idealist—now confronted with reality. In many complex cases, it's easier to be pure and principled on the stump than it is in the Oval Office.
But for a president who campaigned hard against the aggressive national security policies of his unpopular predecessor, Obama is struggling to define himself as markedly different.
The Huffington Post on Thursday led with a brutal banner with the headline “George W. Obama" above a mashup of the two leaders’ faces. The New York Times editorial board, which endorsed Obama twice, came out with a scathing editorial saying the administration has “lost all credibility” on the issue of domestic surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union has charged with president with “the biggest surveillance scandal since the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.”
Obama, meanwhile, is trying to push the message that his programs are rooted in law and have significant oversight–which wasn’t always the case under Bush. The commander in chief stressed this week that his government surveillance program prevents terrorism, possesses significant oversight and protects civil liberties.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said, putting the onus on Congress and declaring that “your duly-elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’ve been doing.” Obama added that if intel wants to listen to the contents of a call, they must go to a federal judge—just like in a criminal investigations.
But even members of Obama’s own party are skeptical.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon expressed concern about the scope of the program. “I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information.” Sen. Barbara Ann Mikulski of Maryland took issue with Attorney General Eric Holder, telling a Senate panel that legislators have been “fully briefed” on the phone surveillance program.
“Fully briefed,” Mikulski said, often “means a group of eight leadership; it does not necessarily mean relevant committees. So fully briefed doesn’t mean we know what’s going on.” And Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota touched on many Americans’ concerns that they have no say in how much privacy they are willing to give up for security’s sake. “The American public can’t be kept in the dark about the basic architecture of the programs designed to protect them,” he said.
Of course, Obama has distanced himself from Bush in many other ways. He effectively ended U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq and is drawing down the war in Afghanistan. On the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Obama took a step toward closing down the prison facility-- though he's failed to close it outright, as he vowed.
It certainly doesn’t help that the existence of the surveillance programs were leaked shortly after the Obama administration was already under fire for the seizure of journalists’ phone records in probing who leaked classified information to the media.
But Obama continues to try and carefully strike a balance between being concerned about the country’s security while also demonstrating his commitment to a free press.
“You know, leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” declared Obama, who has said he was not aware of the AP probe until it was reported by the media. “It can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent to the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised at risk.” He added that “the flip side of it is, we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and open flow of information” helps hold him and the government responsible.
But it's not just data mining. Drones are a problem, too.
Obama, in a major foreign policy speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., last month, argued the drone program—pioneered by Bush and expanded by his own administration--was both legal and vital for national security. The remarks came after Holder acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. killed four Americans in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
Obama seemed to be at odds with himself, and grappling with the practices of the Bush administration, acknowledging that technology raises a number of questions about who is targeted, the civilian casualty toll, the risk of creating new enemies, accountability and morality. The bottom line, he said, was that when used sparingly drones can be effective and amount to few civilian deaths.
“As commander in chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives,” he said.
Rewind to 2008. At a Michigan event, candidate Obama ripped the Bush administration’s suspension of the right of habeaus corpus for suspected terrorists. “If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ and say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.” He added, “The reason why we have that safeguard is we don’t always have the right person. We don’t always catch the right person.”
Obama was referring to extraordinary rendition. But plenty of liberals would argue that the same rights and principles apply to victims of drone strikes.
The past week’s events beg the question: Would Obama the candidate—not Obama the president—approve of the policies he now endorses? The answer seems clear: No. Indeed, the president seems to be battling an internal war with himself—and finds himself drawn toward Bush in ways Obama the candidate would never have believed possible.