Just A Little Misdirection
Barack Obama is not lying.
President Obama does know the way to San Jose (entirely off-topic musical interlude, below), and in a press conference (transcript, her, from DailyKos) in the California city on Friday stated
When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations (sic) of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks -- if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
So I want to be very clear -- some of the hype that we've been hearing over the last day or so -- nobody is listening to the content of people's phone calls. This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA Court -- a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them, and that it's being carried out consistent with the Constitution and rule of law...
But I think it's important for everybody to understand -- and I think the American people understand -- that there are some tradeoffs involved. I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment on that.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls" and "nobody is listening to the content of people's phone calls" and individuals are "not looking at content." Three times (twice more than necessary) the President assured us that no one is listening to the content of phone calls. Nonetheless, a couple of Reuters reporters maintain
But any suggestion that Americans have nothing to worry about from this dragnet collection of communications metadata is wrong. Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets – anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight. The suggestion that metadata is “no big deal” – a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law – is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications...
Repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person’s problems. If a politician were revealed to have repeatedly called a phone sex hotline after 2:00 a.m., no one would need to know what was said on the call before drawing conclusions. In addition sophisticated data-mining technologies have compounded the privacy implications by allowing the government to analyze terabytes of metadata and reveal far more details about a person’s life than ever before.
Investigative journalist extraordinaire Jane Mayer, having interviewed Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Mayer, explains
in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.
Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night.
At his press conference in San Jose, Obama added "I came in with healthy skepticism about these programs." (Notice he gets to change his mind for what he contends is the national interest while still claiming earlier skepticism as "healthy." Pretty slick. Might he have evolved?) However, Obama did not go into the presidency with "healthy skepticism" but with opposition to such a program. The Hill's Brendan Sasso reports
The SAFE Act, introduced by former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), would have amended the Patriot Act to require that the government have "specific and articulable facts" to show that a person is an "agent of a foreign power" before seizing their phone records.
The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee in 2005, but never received a vote. It had 15 co-sponsors in all, including then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who are now members of Obama’s Cabinet.
Experts said the bill that Obama supported in the Senate would have prohibited the sweeping surveillance that has come to light at the National Security Agency (NSA).
"The bill very much limit[ed] the scope of these secret orders to people who are believed to be bad guys instead of innocent citizens," said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at The George Washington University. "It was great that Obama sponsored it at the time, and too bad he has abandoned that principle."
Gregory Nojeim, an attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed that the SAFE Act would have made the mass NSA collection of phone records illegal.
Obama, an unusually intelligent and prescient individual, co-sponsored the SAFE Act with 16 of his colleagues. Now, given the opportunity as President to expand the reach of the federal government, he's all in. Once assumed, this power will not be relinquished, only expanded, under the next President. This, too, will be part of Barack Obama's legacy.