By James Kitfield
President Obama had finally replied to NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s massive, globe-spanning spying network. In a speech at the Justice Department Friday, Obama offered some welcome yet modest reforms that do little to change the fundamental nature of the NSA’s collection of communications “meta data” and unprecedented snooping operations. This week we also learned that Congress has secretly moved to block the administration’s plan to shift control of the targeted-killing-by-drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. Both developments point to the government’s reluctance to relinquish wartime powers, and rein in a burgeoning surveillance state.
It’s been nearly five years since Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, stood in the National Archives as president and proclaimed an end to America’s “season of fear” in which U.S. officials and a compliant Congress determined that antiterrorism ends justified nearly any means. In his first days in office Obama thus banished torture and announced the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year. He promised to create a new legal regime for suspected terrorists consistent with the rule of law, to declassify more information in an era of renewed transparency, and to disavow sweeping presidential powers.
When Obama stepped to to the Justice Department lectern, Gitmo was still open (largely thanks to Congress); he still claims the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner of suspected terrorists around the world, including American citizens; the instrument of that unprecedented power remain shrouded in secrecy at CIA headquarters in Langley (again, thank Congress); the Obama administration will still have charged more leakers of classified information under the Espionage Act than all its predecessors, combined; and the vast U.S. intelligence apparatus will still routinely collect and store the electronic communications (phone calls, emails, tweets, et al) of billions of millions of people suspected of no wrong-doing, including hundreds of millions of Americans.
Obama’s modest reforms are overdue, but they don’t go far enough; it’s also discouraging that it took Snowden’s revelations to finally provoke Obama into even these modest measures. Congress continues to stand in the way of closing Gitmo and transferring drone operations to the Pentagon, which has far more checks-and-balances and transparency than the CIA. Most importantly, by keeping wartime authorities in place 12 years after 9/11, with no end to the “war on terrorism” in sight, powers will continue to accrue to the surveillance state, and civil liberties will continue to wither. Americans would do well to heed the warning of Founding Father Ben Franklin, who noted that those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.