By Walter Shapiro
If all had gone according to plan, Americans would have learned in 25 years that President Barack Obama — once a liberal constitutional law professor — authorized a top-secret National Security Agency program to monitor the logs of their phone calls.
The court order allowing the government to inspect all Verizon phone records was slated to be declassified on April 12, 2038, when today’s political leaders had passed from the stage and were beyond political accountability. Until then, American citizens were supposed to have no way of knowing that the NSA knew when they were good (phoning Grandma for six minutes on her birthday) and when they were bad (arranging an adulterous rendezvous with a 19-minute call to an ex-girlfriend from the office).
Instead, in a major rebuke to Obama’s reputation as a purported defender of civil liberties, the Guardian, the British newspaper, published a top-secret court order Wednesday night that requires Verizon to provide the NSA with access to all of its phone logs. In one of the more chilling passages in the four-page document, Verizon is not allowed “to disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order.”
This was the ultimate expression of the doctrine of don’t ask, don’t tell.
Overnight, the Obama national security team toiled to write talking points for the press, because that damage control strategy worked so well with the news media after Benghazi. While no administration officials commenting on the Guardian story would allow their names to be used (ssshhh, top-secret operation), their responses followed a similar script.
The administration’s central argument is that this secret court order allows the NSA to vacuum up phone records but not to listen to the actual phone calls. That might be filed under the heading, “We haven’t secretly shredded all your civil liberties … yet.”
The talking points also contend that everything is legal under the Patriot Act and other national-security statutes. This was the danger inherent in a panicked Congress overwhelmingly passing draconian legislation in the wake of 9/11.
The continuing veil of secrecy makes it impossible for outsiders to monitor if the Obama administration is overstepping its legal mandate. Democrat MarkUdall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who had been limited to offering cryptic warnings about the surveillance program (ssshhh, top-secret operation), said Thursday that this was “the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking.”
The final administration argument is the familiar don’t-you-know-there’s-a-war-on response: “Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.” That may well be true, but we don’t know for certain (ssshhh, top-secret operation).
Yes, America was attacked in a horrible way nearly 12 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. But Obama himself said just two weeks ago in his victory-over-terrorism speech at the National Defense University: “This war like all wars must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what democracy demands.”
As has so often been the case during the Obama presidency, especially in national security matters, there is a mismatch between the president’s words and his administration’s deeds. It’s almost as if the president talks like Rand Paul and governs like Dick Cheney.
Senators who had been briefed on the NSA phone surveillance program suggested Thursday that it is a continuation of policies that the George W. Bush administration adopted after 9/11. As USA Today reported in 2006, “ The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans.”
It is uplifting that at least one set of policies in Washington remains a bipartisan endeavor.
But that continuity from Bush to Obama brings with it a sense of helplessness for Americans who are frustrated with living perpetually in a fearful national security state. What does it take to turn off the extraordinary measures and supposedly temporary policies adopted after the Twin Towers toppled?
It may take years to know for sure what turned Obama into a national security hawk the moment he entered the Oval Office. But his presidential example is a cautionary lesson in the dangers of believing campaign rhetoric.
Something clearly happens to a newly elected president, regardless of party, the moment he receives his first full-fledged national security briefing. All those can-do national security professionals bristling with news of the latest terrorist threats. All the carefully crafted bureaucratic arguments not to dismantle a single program purportedly safeguarding national security.
The result: A nation of barefoot, beltless, patted-down citizens tromping through airports with the government monitoring their cell phone calls.
Every time there is a revelation like the Guardian story (which will probably trigger another invasive leak investigation), there is the hope that this will be the moment of collective outrage. This will be the moment when left and right unite to pressure the government to revert to the national security policies of the 1990s — the approach that merely won the Cold War.
But, once again, nothing substantive is likely to change. Already, the defenders of the national-security status quo are trotting out claims of derailed plots. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Thursday, “Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States.”
Of course, we will never know the details of the incident that Rogers is citing in trust-us fashion or whether the terrorists could have been thwarted by other means that would have protected the privacy of Americans. Because ssshhh, it was a top-secret operation.
Maybe, just maybe, things will change with a new president in 2017. And we can enter a new era when the only government that is secretly hacking our phone calls is the Chinese.