President Obama was elected in 2008 buoyed by an enormous sense of hope from progressive quarters. The extent to which he had lived up to those hopes will be debated long after he leaves office. During his first campaign Obama successfully built an image that presented him as everything for every progressive. For anti-war activists, he had strong anti-war credentials. His personal story facilitated strong ties to African-Americans and voters of his generation. As an urban liberal, many just assumed that he was strong on things like the environment, labor and LGBT issues. Lastly, as a one-time professor of constitutional law, it seemed natural that he would be a strong civil libertarian.
President Obama has disappointed some progressives on issues including health care, banking and finance, and foreign policy. In these areas, however, there is room for debate, with some progressives believing Obama has abandoned his progressive principles too quickly, while others have argued that the president has had to act pragmatically; and that delivering something is better than producing nothing. Civil liberties, on the other hand, is one area where Obama has unambiguously failed his progressive supporters, and his country more generally.
Revelations of the extent of NSA surveillance of ordinary American citizens have been met with outrage in some quarters while supporters of these programs, or supporters of the president or this policy have been forced into very awkward defenses of the widespread surveillance. Some defenders of the president or the program find themselves arguing that the program is not so bad because it only tracks who citizens call and from where they make calls, but does not listen in to the calls themselves. This amount to an "other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?" position and offers cold comfort to Americans concerned about their civil liberties.
The tradeoff between security and privacy, which defenders of the policy also cite, is real, but the NSA has taken this to an unnecessary extreme. The task of the federal government is not to immediately go to what should be a last resort, but to find ways to address the threat of terrorism in a way that maximizes protection of privacy. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has clearly failed in this endeavor.
These types of surveillance programs also rest on some reasonably tenuous assumptions. There is little evidence that terrorism continues to be a sufficiently widespread threat that following the phone calls of millions of Americans is necessary to address it. Moreover, if the threat were really that severe, than it would be extremely difficult to use the data drawn from surveillance of this kind to stop terrorism.
Supporters of the NSA program claim that surveillance has stopped attacks, but this is very hard to prove. It is also hard to know what role the surveillance, as opposed to the rest of the law enforcement apparatus, played in foiling these attacks. These assertions raise other questions as well. Even if the NSA surveillance foiled terrorist plots, they clearly cannot foil all plots. The recent attacks in Boston are precisely the kind of thing which this type of program should have caught, but it did not manage to stop that horrific attack from occurring.
It is nonetheless likely that monitoring phone calls and the like could be a way to make Americans safer from terrorism, but that alone is not a sufficient rationale for establishing, or continuing programs like this. The rights and liberties which our constitution gives us do not come without risk. If taking some of these liberties away from Americans because it may make them safer, then it is a relatively easy step to taking away more liberties to make us safe. At some point, the tradeoff is no longer worth it. For many Americans, we have already passed that point.
There is also a lesson in this story for all Americans. The communications technology, which in less than a generation has become deeply woven into our every day lives may be fun, convenient and strangely addictive, but they are also an open invitation to be watched. Privacy is no longer the default setting in our lives. In a world where Google, Facebook and others track our ever online move, NSA surveillance does not make the U.S. an authoritarian regime. Nor does it mean that Orwell's dark predictions have come true, but it has left the door to that open in the U.S. and elsewhere. President Obama, for his part, has not taken away our freedoms, but he has set a precedent that has made it a lot easier for that to happen in the future. Progressives who support Obama in this because he is our president or because we want him to succeed are complicit in that.
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