Jacob Sullum

In its report last December, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which Obama appointed in response to the NSA controversy, noted that "the record of every telephone call an individual makes or receives over the course of several years can reveal an enormous amount about that individual's private life." Furthermore, the panel said, the same legal theory that the NSA uses to justify mass collection of phone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act could be used to collect "bank records, credit card records, medical records, travel records, Internet search records, e-mail records, educational records, library records, and so on."

By his account, Obama did not understand any of this until critics started complaining about the NSA's heretofore secret database. He also was suddenly troubled by the fact that the program "has never been subject to vigorous public debate," although his administration did everything it could to prevent such a debate.

Another reason to question Obama's sincerity: He continues to exaggerate the utility of the database, arguing in his speech that it is needed to stop terrorist attacks. Yet his own privacy advisers concluded that "the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders" -- that is, specific orders aimed at particular targets.

Obama and his review group do agree on one important point. "Given the unique power of the state," Obama said on Friday, "it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect." The working group likewise warned that "Americans must never make the mistake of wholly 'trusting' our public officials." As long as Obama is in the White House, there is little risk of that.

Jacob Sullum

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