Last month at Ohio State University’s commencement, President Obama held forth on the issue of trust in government. “You’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity,” he told the new graduates. “They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, and creative, and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.” Given the revelations in recent days and weeks of his administration’s illicit and undercover activities, Mr. Obama’s “trust” speech should go down in the history of irony.
The National Security Agency’s (NSA) top secret Prism program, which was exposed this week, illustrates why people distrust government. The scope of NSA collection is breathtaking. It does not simply target phone call metadata, which is bad enough. It has indiscriminately sucked up emails, chats, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing, login activity, online social networking details and “special requests” whatever they are. And the collection effort is not limited to Verizon, but also involves Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, Youtube, Skype, AOL and Apple. As many as 50 companies, ISP’s, and credit agencies now have their records – which is to say, your records – in secret government databases.
Distrust of government was a majority opinion well before the recent scandal outbreaks. A January 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53% believed – correctly it turns out — that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. A Gallup survey from 2011 found that when asked if the biggest threat to the country in the future was big business, big labor or big government, the state was cited by 64%. Again, correct answer.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper defends Prism and other such projects as necessary wartime tools, even as Mr. Obama has said the war on terrorism is over. Clapper and others claim that the system has saved the country from devastating terror attacks. Well, maybe so, or maybe not. Lacking details the public has no way of knowing. We do know that the Boston bombers were able successfully to execute their attack on the United States even though the intelligence community had been given explicit warnings about them by both the Russian and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. If Prism was used to track the Tsarnaev Brothers, it failed. If not, why have it?
Mr. Clapper and others claim the system is legal under the Patriot Act. But Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), one of the principle authors of the law, believes that it was never intended to allow government surveillance of this breathtaking scope. Furthermore, we cannot take the word of a self-interested government on the legality of its own questionable activities. The Obama administration has taken a particularly cavalier approach to due process rights. It resisted having to justify targeted assassination of Americans abroad, and when the White House finally claimed a Constitutional rationale, it said the argument was classified. The Justice Department has repeatedly sought to have Google hand over user data without warrants, moving from judge to judge seeking a favorable ruling. This judge shopping technique is endemic. Attorney General Eric Holder had to try three judges before he found one willing to let him seize James Rosen’s emails and phone logs. That proceeding was kept secret as well. And when secret courts make secret rulings against the government, the Justice Department strives to keep these decisions under wraps too.
Mr. Obama expects the American people to take his word that this massive trove of private information in the hands of the government has never been misused, while at the same time his administration is in the throes of scandals at the IRS and Justice Department centered around the abuse of such information. He asks for unquestioning trust while his press secretary shifts, dodges and reshapes stories after exposés make his previous statements inoperable. Mr. Obama wants us to have a faith-base expectation that government officials are behaving, then shrugs and says he only knows what they are up when he reads it in the papers.
Mr. Obama’s last-ditch argument is that we should simply trust him. But the United States was founded on a healthy and necessary distrust of government. James Madison told us that men are not angels, and history warns that power corrupts. “The founders trusted us with this awesome authority,” Mr. Obama said at Ohio State. “We should trust ourselves with it, too.” Or not; the U.S. Constitution was not written by men who believed that liberty is best secured by having the government read everyone’s mail.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins