Lifestyle & Belief

Presidents who live in glass cyberhouses shouldn’t throw stones


US President Barack Obama shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who was then China's vice president in his February 2012 visit to Washington.


Saul Loeb

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — There will be limited opportunity for finger-wagging as President Barack Obama goes into a second day of meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in California on Saturday.

The two men are expected to be working to forge a personal bond that could lead to improved relations between the two countries, but Obama has also been urged to press Xi on human rights and on the increasingly troublesome issue of cyber-spying.

At the same time, the US president is facing a storm of criticism on those fronts at home.

The country has been rocked by recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records on millions of ordinary Americans, seizing massive amounts of data from internet providers and even using credit card information to monitor Americans’ spending habits. 

On the human rights front, Obama is having to defend his failure to close the prison at Guantanamo, his continuing drone strike program, and an IRS scandal that seems to indicate the government is targeting political opponents.

It is a difficult time for the United States to be giving citizenship lessons to the rest of the world.

In fact, the intrusion of Big Government into the lives of law-abiding citizens has been so significant that some are wondering whether the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 have, in fact, succeeded in destroying some part of the American way of life.

“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” said Obama just two weeks ago, in his speech at the National Defense University. “That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.”

In the wake of 9/11, the government under President George W. Bush gave the government sweeping and unprecedented powers under the Patriot Act. Obama himself acknowledged on Friday that he had been initially skeptical of the need for such broad powers before his election, but says he is now convinced that what he called “a modest encroachment” on privacy was necessary to keep the country safe.

"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society. ... There are trade-offs involved."

But he is facing mounting criticism from the media and from members of his own party, who see the government’s programs as dangerous.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), both members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a statement Friday registering their objections to the president’s position.

“We ... disagree with the statement that the broad Patriot Act collection strikes the ‘right balance’ between protecting American security and protecting Americans' privacy,” they wrote. “We believe the large-scale collection of this information by the government has a very significant impact on Americans' privacy, whether senior government officials recognize that fact or not.”

They also dismissed claims by the government that the surveillance programs had been critical in thwarting terrorist attacks on US soil.

“We remain unconvinced that the secret Patriot Act collection has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence. As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does.”

Under the Patriot Act, authorization for the collection of data is granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, an ostensibly independent body that is tasked with reviewing requests for information and ascertaining that they meet acceptable legal standards. 

But in reality, FISC seems to provide little or no check on the government’s growing appetite for information.

According to information provided to Congress by the Justice Department, the Court has almost never denied a request. Since 2001, just 10 requests have been denied, while more than 15,000 have been granted.

“It is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp,” Russell Tice, a former National Security Agency analyst told the UK’s Guardian newspaper

Obama said on Friday that he welcomed the debate that the revelations had unleashed, saying that it was “healthy for our democracy” to have an open discussion about the balance between privacy and security. At the same time, he deplored the leaks that launched the debate.

“If every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures,” he said.

Officials within his administration have indicated that the administration will continue its policy of aggressively investigating the sources of the leaks.

According to The Washington Post, one of the newspapers to break the internet data-mining story, the person at the center of the information disclosure is expecting to be targeted:

“The career intelligence officer who disclosed details of the online data-mining program to The Post said he acted out of a sense that the NSA has exceeded the privacy expectations of Americans. The source thinks he is likely to be exposed and is prepared for that possibility.”

But the furor seems to have left most Americans cold. The government’s argument that the measures have been adopted to keep them safe is working, according to major opinion polls.

“Since 9/11, Americans generally have valued protection from terrorism over civil liberties,” writes Carroll Doherty, of the Pew Research Center. “Most recently, in 2010, 47 percent said they were more concerned that government policies ‘have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country,’ while 32 percent said they were more concerned that ‘they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties.’

Many Americans just do not see why there is such a fuss over the recent revelations.

NPR’s Diane Rehm addressed the issue on her Friday news roundup, and took calls from people like Samuel, in Hyattsville, Md.

“I feel like if you don't have anything to hide and … you're not involved in any illegal activity, my opinion is, what is the problem if the government is looking at your phone records or who you talk to? I don't know why people are paranoid about stuff like that,” said Samuel.

But civil libertarians continue to sound the alarm.

One rabid radical named Benjamin Franklin issued this trite but true proclamation more than 250 years ago:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”