President Barack Obama proclaimed Dec. 15 Bill of Rights Day, praising those first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution as “the foundation of American liberty, securing our most fundamental rights—from the freedom to speak, assemble and practice our faith as we please to the protections that ensure justice under the law.” The next day, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon called Obama’s surveillance policies “almost Orwellian” in a court order finding the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata very likely unconstitutional. If that was not enough, the president’s own task force on the issues, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, delivered its report, which the White House released, with 46 recommendations for changes.
One adviser to the panel, Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute, was skeptical, telling me that “intelligence-community insiders, administration officials, comprise the entirety of this five-member group. I do not see how you can do a truly independent review of surveillance when so many people are tied in.” The panel is chaired by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell, and is managed under the auspices of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, run by James Clapper. Clapper is widely considered to have lied in a Senate hearing on this issue. When asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., if the NSA collected phone records on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, Clapper replied, “No, sir.” Following the Snowden leaks, Clapper admitted to NBC News that his answer was the “least untruthful” manner to say no.
Judge Leon’s ruling relates to just one of several filed after the June disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the vast, global surveillance system vacuuming up personal data from billions of people. A separate federal lawsuit in New York, ACLU v. Clapper, seeks to end the mass surveillance completely, and to have all the data collected so far deleted.
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called Edward Snowden “a patriot,” noting: “As a whistle-blower of illegal government activity that was sanctioned and kept secret by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government for years, he undertook great personal risk for the public good. And he has single-handedly reignited a global debate about the extent and nature of government surveillance and our most fundamental rights as individuals.”
Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, reiterated the White House’s hard line this week: “Mr. Snowden has been accused of leaking classified information, and he faces felony charges here in the United States.”
Currently in Russia, halfway through a year of temporary asylum he was granted there, Edward Snowden this week issued a public letter to the people of Brazil, in hopes of gaining permanent asylum there. In the letter, Snowden wrote, “Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera ... with open eyes, knowing that the decision would cost me family and my home, and would risk my life. I was motivated by a belief that the citizens of the world deserve to understand the system in which they live.” He continued: “My greatest fear was that no one would listen to my warning. Never have I been so glad to have been so wrong.”
The world continues to listen to Snowden. As he also said in his open letter, “The culture of indiscriminate worldwide surveillance, exposed to public debates and real investigations on every continent, is collapsing.” A recent poll suggests at least 55 percent of those questioned consider Snowden a whistle-blower. Despite the polls, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin blustered about potential amnesty for Snowden: “This is a hated man, what would he even do here?”
Adopted on Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights comprises the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. While praising it last week and ticking through “our most fundamental rights,” President Obama failed to mention the Fourth Amendment. It reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Perhaps President Obama, the erstwhile constitutional-law professor, should go back and reread that amendment.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.