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Obama Should Have Given Americans a Choice

President Obama defended the government’s massive surveillance programs Friday, saying they “help us prevent terrorist attacks.”

(Photo: Evan Vucci/ AP)“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said during an exchange with the press in San Jose, Calif. “My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”

Despite what he called, “the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved,” Obama came to the conclusion that “it was worth us doing.” He added: “Some other folks may have a different assessment on that.”

Isn’t it a pity the president didn’t have an opportunity to make such a case before the public, perhaps a national election during which the voters could weigh his arguments and make their own assessment as to whether such “modest encroachments” on one of our most cherished liberties were worth it? The president must have been too busy in 2012 to think of it. His team was reportedly engaged at the time in a mad dash to put down some limits on the use of drones to assassinate foreigners lest Mitt Romney win the election and that awesome power be placed, like so many others exercised by this president and the one who came before him, in someone else’s hands.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: Although most of the companies mentioned in the news have denied this, it was reported this week that the National Security Agency and the FBI have direct access to the communications and files stored on the servers of the biggest technology companies. This news broke just after we learned that the government probably has access to the phone records of all Americans. Which is, in turn, on top of the recent revelations that the Obama administration has used its power through the Justice Department and the IRS to spy on reporters and target conservative political groups’ tax-exempt status applications for particular scrutiny. Of course let’s not forget that the president also maintains a secret “kill list” of assassination targets.

This week The New York Times wrote that the president, who once promised a restoration of civil liberties, had “lost all credibility” on the issue of transparency. That’s a nice way of saying don’t trust that man, and with the aforementioned list of sins, I’m forced to agree. Obama said his would be a transparent government, but, as the paper’s editorial board pointed out, it is only because of conscientious leakers and news outlets willing to publish what they discover that we know anything about the president’s many controversial and secret activities, which, whenever they are discovered, he claims are for the benefit of the people. Indeed, Obama has been more ruthless than even George W. Bush in his pursuit of whistle-blowers and leakers, locking away individuals who expose graft, torture and war crimes, while simultaneously presiding over press intimidation. Obama says he’s looking for terrorists. So why is he reading The Associated Press’ emails?

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I made: No. 1, to keep the American people safe; and No. 2, to uphold the Constitution,” he said in San Jose. It seems the president put those in order of importance, as he sees it. Ben Franklin, you might have heard, would disagree. He’s the goof who said, “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The president said Friday, “The programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified. But they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.”

That may be, but these programs were never authorized by the American people, directly, and since we’re talking about a pretty fundamental breach of the Constitution, isn’t that a reasonable expectation? Are the Senate and House intelligence committees truly adequate representation for more than 314 million people?

The freedoms and rights enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are sacred and rare in this world. That is why it takes such monumental political tests to amend those documents. Not a Patriot Act. Not a president, a couple of committees and some secret judges. It is to be done in the light of day with the consent of the governed.

As a senator, Barack Obama was vehemently opposed to the abuses of power by the Bush administration. He rejected the “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.” If President Obama changed his mind about that, it seems to me there was a perfectly appropriate time to say so, and that would have been, at the latest, before the 2012 election.