When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, he vowed to restore transparency and openness to government. The former constitutional law professor had been especially critical of the administration of President George W. Bush and its abuses of civil liberties, from secretly torturing prisoners at unnamed "black sites" to conducting wiretaps without warrants in apparent violation of federal law. But while Obama has been a much better president than Bush, he has repeatedly failed to live up to his campaign promises during his four-plus years in the White House.
The Obama Justice Department, for example, has led more criminal probes of government whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. And new revelations disclosed last week by the Guardian that Obama's National Security Agency has been collecting data of all phone calls made by Americans likely will result in yet another attempt to imprison someone who has let us know what our government is doing. Indeed, some Obama administration officials have already called for the prosecution of the Guardian's source, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of a defense contractor. US Senator Dianne Feinstein of California contended earlier this week that Snowden's actions amounted to "treason."
But a criminal prosecution of Snowden promises to be steeped in even more hypocrisy. During a visit to the Bay Area last week, Obama attempted to greatly downplay the constitutional questions raised by the massive data-collection operation. He called the flurry of news stories about the secret warrant Snowden leaked to the Guardian, showing that the NSA has been collecting the records of all of Verizon phone company's customers, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrongdoing — including the phone numbers they call; the phone numbers of people who call them; the location of their calls; and the dates, times, and duration of calls — "hype." "Nobody's listening to the content of people's phone calls," the president declared.
That may be true, but Obama can't have it both ways. He can't tell us that collecting our phone data is no big deal, while other members of his administration tell us that this program was vital, should have been kept secret, and was such a big deal that the person who leaked the information must be prosecuted. Some Senate leaders also disclosed that the NSA has been collecting this type of information from all phone carriers nationwide for seven years.
The Guardian and Washington Post also revealed — thanks to Snowden — that the NSA has the ability to gather a wide range of Internet-usage information from major tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Apple. However, this secret program appears to be not as sweeping as the phone-data-collection program.
Regardless, the problem with all of this is the lack of transparency. It's one thing to keep secret an investigation of a possible terrorist cell; most Americans likely would agree that keeping such probes covert is smart. But it's quite another thing to hide the fact that our government is collecting what we thought was our private information.
Such secrecy only breeds suspicion and distrust of government — the very same problems that candidate Obama decried years ago. Moreover, at this point, there appears to have been no good reason for keeping the phone-data collecting a secret in the first place. Does our government really think that actual terrorists don't suspect that their calls are being monitored? In fact, many Americans may have also assumed — correctly, it turns out — that Uncle Sam has been collecting their phone metadata as well.
So why all this secrecy? If this program is no big deal, as Obama says, and is perfectly legal, as his administration and members of Congress contend, then why not have an open, lengthy public debate about it? In fact, in yet another moment of jaw-dropping hypocrisy, Obama claimed late last week that he "welcomed" a debate about the program — after years of keeping it secret, and after his administration had already started contemplating a criminal prosecution of the person who exposed it.
Hypocrisy aside, Obama should live up to his word. He should declassify the program and we should have an open conversation about it. Feinstein claims that it has helped thwart terrorism. If true, let's hear the details. Let's talk about whether we think that, in the name of safety, it's okay for our government to keep track of all our phone calls.
The truth is that Obama and Feinstein already know the answer.
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