WASHINGTON — The news that President Barack Obama continued the Bush administration’s domestic telephone surveillance program is sparking new doubts about a president who campaigned as a champion of civil liberties and greater transparency.
“It’s remarkable that the man who rode his way to the presidency by suggesting George Bush’s anti-terrorism policies violated the Constitution is emulating those policies himself,” said Ari Fleischer, the former president’s press secretary. “It’s as if George Bush had gotten a fourth term.”
Former Vice President Al Gore took to Twitter to say: “Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?”
The reactions followed a report that the government has obtained a secret court order for U.S.-based Verizon Communications Inc. to furnish the National Security Agency with data about domestic calls and those between the U.S. and other countries.
The disclosure, first made by the British newspaper the Guardian, sent the White House into damage-control mode once again, burying Obama’s education message in North Carolina Thursday and threatening to overshadow his California summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It also risked further undermining public confidence in his administration at a time when Obama is pressing for a revision of immigration laws that puts the government in charge of securing the border and creating a new program to enroll undocumented immigrants.
Obama conceded Friday that he had previously been critical of Bush’s anti-terror tactics, while insisting his team had properly weighed civil liberties and security concerns.
“You know, I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he told reporters traveling with him in San Jose, Calif. “In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”
Even as the bipartisan leadership of intelligence committees have defended the program as essential to national security, some Democrats say it’s raising potentially harmful concerns about the Obama administration’s trustworthiness. That is particularly so, they said, when viewed in light of recent disclosures that the Internal Revenue Service targeted small- government groups for scrutiny and the Justice Department conducted surveillance on Associated Press and Fox News journalists.
“It’s just one event after another, each creating doubts and uncertainty about the core principles of this administration, and that’s what’s so dangerous about this,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart of the Washington-based Hart Research Associates.
“It’s a sense of government out of control,” Hart said, adding that it could boost the Republican-aligned tea party that advocates for smaller government: “They may be crazy, but they have a point.”
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the government has access to internal data at nine Internet companies and is culling photographs, emails, audio and videos. The program, initiated in 2007, is code-named PRISM, the newspaper said.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of the tea party’s most popular figures and a presidential prospect for 2016, was among the most vocal in his criticism of Obama about the surveillance program Thursday, calling it an “astounding assault on the Constitution.”
Democrats were no more forgiving. “I hope this story will force a real debate about the government’s domestic surveillance authorities,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “The American people have a right to know whether their government thinks that the sweeping, dragnet surveillance that has been alleged in this story is allowed under the law and whether it is actually being conducted.”
It’s a debate that White House says the president is ready to have.
“The president welcomes the discussion of the trade-offs between privacy and security,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.
Top Republican and Democratic intelligence leaders in Congress said they were aware of the administration’s actions and that they considered them appropriate. That didn’t quell calls for change.
“This latest news disclosure gives us a challenge and an opportunity” to re-evaluate whether the limitations in U.S. law are sufficient, Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill news conference. He called it “an invitation to renew that conversation” about revisiting the Patriot Act, which was passed in 2001 and authorized the secret telephone-monitoring program.
Beyond the immediate furor, the episode was yet another indication that when it comes to national security and thwarting terrorist attacks, Obama has reached some of the same conclusions that Bush did.
“There isn’t as much difference as the president originally suggested there would be — that’s not right or wrong, it’s just a fact,” former Republican Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, who was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said in an interview. For instance, he said neither Bush nor Obama followed through on the commission’s recommendation to create a civil liberties panel at the White House that would weigh in on issues such as the Verizon order.
What has changed, Kean said, is that as a Democrat, Obama has faced less scrutiny for his counter-terrorism policies than did his Republican predecessor.
“It’s much easier for a Democratic president, because many of the civil libertarians are Democrats — although we have found some libertarians now on the Republican side who are willing to question these things,” Kean said.
Obama’s administration has acknowledged carrying out targeted killings with U.S. drones and, although it has repeatedly promised to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it has yet to accomplish that goal. The White House also routinely sought to block lawsuits against the government by claiming it had to withhold “state secrets” to protect national security.
It isn’t the posture the president struck as a presidential candidate, including when he argued it was an abuse of powers under the PATRIOT Act to spy on Americans.
Bush “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. 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,” Obama said in an Aug. 1, 2007 speech in Washington.
“We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary,” Obama added. “This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not. There are no short-cuts to protecting America.”
In his 2008 campaign literature on terrorism, he pledged as president to revisit the PATRIOT Act to ensure “real and robust oversight.” The document said, “There is no reason we cannot fight terrorism while maintaining our civil liberties.”
Thursday, prominent Democrats and Republicans suggested Obama has himself been failing to strike that balance.
Former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, a leading PATRIOT Act foe when he was in Congress, said the news suggests the government could be using U.S. intelligence surveillance law “in an indiscriminate way that does not balance our legitimate concerns of national security with the necessity to preserve our fundamental civil rights.”