Jacob Sullum

Last week President Obama claimed he welcomed the public debate over recently revealed government surveillance programs that track personal information about millions of innocent Americans. But if it were up to him, the debate never would have happened, since the programs would have remained secret. And if his administration is true to form, it will treat the whistleblower who made the debate possible as a criminal.

The truth is that Obama does not think a debate is necessary, because top government officials have already considered all the relevant points behind closed doors and arrived at the perfect formula for sacrificing privacy in the name of security. You will have to take his word for it, however, because the formula is classified. This is Obama's idea of open and transparent government.

As a presidential candidate, Obama rejected "a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand." As president, he admonishes us that "you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy" because "there are some tradeoffs involved." Although Obama "came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs," he said last week, "My team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks." Things look different once your hands are on the reins of power. Suddenly safeguards aimed at protecting civil liberties don't seem so important.

Don't get Obama wrong. He does not mean "to suggest that you just say: 'Trust me. We're doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are.'" If that's what you thought he was saying, you may have his surveillance program confused with his assassination program, under which all the deadly decisions are made within the executive branch. In this case, Obama said, members of Congress are "fully briefed" and "federal judges are overseeing the entire program."

But according to Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime ally of the president, the information shared with Congress is sketchy. "To say that there's congressional approval suggests a level of information and oversight that's just not there," he told The New York Times.

What about those judges? Obama was referring to members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who rule in secret, do not have much leeway to second-guess the administration's demands for data and almost never do.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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