On Jan. 17, President Barack Obama called for reforms in the ability of the federal government to gather information to protect national security. He gave neither side what they wanted and refused to reach final conclusions or order definitive actions.
Ironically, he might be his own worst enemy, as his unprecedented expansion of presidential and federal power is the greatest of impediments to successfully reforming vitally important programs to keep Americans safe while also keeping them free.
In the president’s speech, he observed that “intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.” As he explained, “in the early days of the Cold War, President Truman created the National Security Agency, or NSA, to give us insights into the Soviet bloc and provide our leaders with information they need to confront aggression and avert catastrophe.” He added that since the Cold War ended, these abilities have been directed to all sorts of foreign threats against America.
The current controversy comes from several years of revelations that the NSA gathers an inconceivable amount of data every day as it looks for patterns and clues regarding terrorist plots. Some defense hawks say it’s necessary, while almost all civil libertarians condemn it as illegal and a breach of privacy. As technology advances in sophistication and reaches into every aspect of our lives, the dangers of this work increase.
National security is the top priority that the U.S. Constitution assigns to the federal government. The president is the principal agent of that power, invested by Article II of the Constitution with control of the military as commander-in-chief and with power to control foreign diplomacy. National security decisions must often be made quickly, decisively, and sometimes in secret. More than any other constitutional officer, the president’s foremost duty is to protect American citizens and the homeland against attack.
Yet there are limits under the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures mainly applies to citizens (and many noncitizens) in the United States to protect them against police abuses during criminal investigations. It does not apply to wartime actions of military troops against foreign threats overseas. However, in situations such as this, there are questions about what exactly the Fourth Amendment requires regarding Americans who get caught up in these massive surveillance programs.
Obama’s plan at this point has several parts. First, increase his oversight of his own agencies, which hardly sounds groundbreaking. Second, “reform programs and procedures” of these programs, which tells us little. Third, develop “additional protections” for civil liberties by restricting how the Justice Department can use information to prosecute American citizens that was incidentally acquired while monitoring a foreign threat. And fourth, being more “transparent” about when the FBI forces companies to disclose information about people by including an expiration date on those demands and the requirement that companies keep them secret.
Then, specifically about the NSA data collection at the heart of this controversy, Obama announced a “new approach” and ordered a “transition” to a system that “preserves the capabilities we need,” but without the government’s retaining vast records on American citizens’ private communications. That tells the American people almost nothing.
Obama said he will work with Congress to develop new rules, and in the meantime will consult with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). This raised flags with some legal scholars, objecting that only Congress can develop new rules through lawmaking, and that any new policy the White House develops directly with a classified court would be illegal.
Although the Constitution vests a president with extraordinary powers where national security is concerned, he still cannot legislate, so only Congress can through legislation make major changes to how the government protects this nation. This may be yet another chapter in the story of the president issuing executive orders and taking unilateral action on matters the Constitution assigns to a different branch of government. His trend of bypassing Congress has degraded relations with Congress to such a point that passing controversial legislation will be difficult.
However, aside from the lack of specifics and deferring final decisions, another problem the president faces is how his rhetoric is contradicted by his actions and policies.
The president promises information gathered by the NSA will not be used to “suppress criticism or dissent.” Yet his IRS is in the middle of creating extremely broad rules to ban nonprofit organizations from disagreeing with him, his policies, and his political allies.
He also promises to respects people’s other beliefs, such as religious beliefs. Yet his administration is in an unprecedented assault on religious liberty, most especially devout Christians, under Obamacare with the Abortion Pill Mandate that is now going to the Supreme Court. In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Obama’s claim that federal agencies can force churches to hire or retain ministers that the church does not want as its leaders.
Obama’s lack of credibility stems from situations like Obamacare’s broken promises and blatant falsehoods – if you like your healthcare plan or doctor, you can keep it, “period.”
Then there is the credibility fallout regarding national security specifically, due to Benghazi. Now the Democrat-controlled Senate reports that the White House knew from the beginning that al-Qaeda was involved and that the attack could have been prevented if the president and Secretary Hillary Clinton had made the right decisions.
If Obama were a president calling for limited government and getting Washington, D.C., out of Americans’ daily lives, more people would give him the benefit of the doubt on the NSA. Instead, he is implementing a form of Western European socialism, with massive government intervention into the daily lives and personal decisions of every American. His point man for the NSA reforms will be John Podesta, the former chairman of the Center for American Progress, which is the most radical of the top-tier liberal think tanks, advocating policies that range from outright socialism, to authoritarianism, to fundamental transformation of the American way of life.
President Obama gave an eloquent speech on reforming intelligence gathering. His problem isn’t the words he speaks; it’s the actions he takes.
Ken Klukowski is senior legal analyst for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.