Opinion: Obama’s surveillance legacy
Just two days after his Jan. 10 farewell speech, the Obama administration granted sweeping surveillance powers to the incoming Trump presidency – dramatically expanding 17 government agencies legal authority to spy on US citizens.
By Sascha Meinrath
Jan 18 2017
In his farewell address earlier this month, outgoing President Obama warned that US citizens “must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” And digital privacy advocates such as myself welcomed his call to “reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.”
Yet Mr. Obama’s most enduring legacy may be the establishment of the modern US surveillance state. During his eight years in office, Obama has dramatically expanded the reach of US government surveillance, with scores of new revelations of previously unknown surveillance initiatives continuing to regularly come to light.
Just two days after his Jan. 10 farewell speech, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration had granted sweeping surveillance powers to the incoming Trump presidency – dramatically expanding 17 government agencies legal authority to spy on US citizens.
This schizophrenia between rhetoric and action has plagued the Obama administration, but in this case, also directly undermines the very values the exiting president has called upon the nation to so vociferously support.
Obama’s surveillance expansion was accomplished not with legislation but though the power of the president to issue new, or, in this case, updated, executive orders. Specifically, Obama added to the order former President Ronald Reagan first created in December 1981 – Executive Order 12333.
This cold war relic had a singular goal, to “provide the president and the National Security Council with the necessary information on which to base decisions concerning the conduct and development of foreign, defense and economic policy, and the protection of United States national interests from foreign security threats.” Obama has updated the original intent and expanded its scope – just as former President George W. Bush did in 2004 and 2008.
Obama’s administration has reinterpreted “foreign security threats” to also mean “domestic security threats” and increased the number of agencies that have access to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance data. With the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, Treasury Department/IRS, Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and “such other elements of any department or agency as may be designated by the president” now able to get this data, there’s really no meaningful limit to how widely information might be shared nor who might be targeted.
These changes will dramatically increase the impact of spying on everyday Americans. Many more government agencies will access to your most private emails, phone calls, text messages, social media posts, and a host of other information; and compartmentalization of sensitive information will be irreparably diminished.
The power of these tools is far greater than should be in the hands of any president, regardless of political affiliation. However, whatever your concerns are about data in the hands of the government – and the concomitant development of registries targeting everyone from Muslims and immigrants to gun owners – this threat to democracy is compounded by the complete lack of transparency.
Under the veil of “national security,” these programs are largely hidden from the American people. As we celebrate Martin Luther King this month, we should remember the lessons of COINTELPRO – the secret surveillance program that labeled Martin Luther King a terrorist and sought to discredit this civil rights leader and drive him to suicide.
Obama has rightfully pointed out the stakes in America’s ongoing battles against terrorist threats. The Islamic State, he said, “cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.”
But simultaneously gutting the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution seems particularly self-defeating. The Fourth Amendment is unequivocal in its intent to protect people’s right to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” And as a constitutional scholar, Obama already knows that the Fourth Amendment explicitly requires law enforcement to get a warrant prior to invading an individual’s privacy.
By using the power of the executive branch to enable warrantless surveillance of millions upon millions of Americans, Obama is not protecting the core values of our country, he is undermining them.