Remember when Obama condemned the Bush administration for violating civil liberties?

Due to the willingness of nation states and international terrorist organisations to increasingly conduct their activities within the domain of communication technology, in particular the internet, it is clear that surveillance remains a necessary evil.

John Stephenson is a politics student at Lancaster University

Due to the willingness of nation states and international terrorist organisations to increasingly conduct their activities within the domain of communication technology, in particular the internet, it is clear that surveillance remains a necessary evil.

Yet being watched and monitored does seem intuitively sinister and the thought of many of your everyday activities being recorded leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

The very extent to which systems such as PRISM can penetrate into our lives needs constraining, although it is the expansion of executive powers that Americans need be most wary of.

For instance, surveillance instruments such as the FBI’s ‘national security letters’ coerce public bodies such as banks and libraries to hand over information on their clientele without any form of court approval.

Nonetheless, checks and balances within intelligence are not unknown. In fact it was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 that stipulated that government departments need authorization from a special ‘FISA court’ in order to wiretap and investigate ‘foreign agents’.

The problem lies in the fact that these hearings are likely to be mere rubber stamps for intelligence-gathering. I say likely because they are conducted in secret, so any political transparency flies out the window before we even get started. To make matters worse, the 2001 PATRIOT act extended FISA’s remit to include individuals who may not necessarily have links to foreign governments.

However, to get the root of the issue it is not enough to simply criticise or lobby the organisations involved in such activity. It is the White House where the authority arises. For instance, between 2002 and 2005 it was the Bush administration that authorised the NSA’s tapping of thousands of phone lines without warrant, facing a debacle in the New York Times when the story finally broke.

With a new administration taking the helm, you could be excused for expecting such apparent abuses of power to dissipate; Obama promised a more careful approach to foreign policy and rejected terms such as the ‘axis of evil’ and even the ‘global war on terror’. Yet, in light of recent events, such behaviour evidently still prevails.

During 2011 the amount spent by US agencies to classify information rose by $1.2 billion to $11.36 billion and the amount of data requests continues to rise. What makes this even more ominous is the fact that this figure leaves out ‘key intelligence operations’ so the figure could be much higher.

US data requests

Obama defends such actions on the basis that it has the potential to thwart terrorist activity, yet this is pure hypocrisy on his part. In 2007 he condemned the Bush administration for violating civil liberties, claiming that there were “no shortcuts to protecting America”, and calling for change in order to protect those who are not suspected of crimes from being targeted. This change appears a long way off.

As if that were not enough, Jim Sensenbrenner – the author of the PATRIOT act – has spoken out to denounce the intelligence agencies’ operations, questioning the need to monitor the activity of thousands of American citizens.

Executive power of this sort appears to contradict facets of constitutional law that reign supreme in other areas of the American legal system. In previous years executive orders – political decisions which bypass Congress – have been used for purely symbolic purposes on matters which the American public are predominantly impartial.

However, this is not to say that Presidents of yesteryear aren’t guilty of ‘competence-creep’: prior to WW1 Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order eerily similar to the activities of the Bush administration in which the censorship of telegraph and phone lines was to be implemented, all without the backing of Congress.

When the US authorities eventually catch up with Edward Snowden, maybe as many questions should be directed at the top of the ladder as are directed at him.

2 Responses to “Remember when Obama condemned the Bush administration for violating civil liberties?”

  1. John Ruddy

    Which would you prefer? Obama having these problems with PRISM and the NSA?
    Or President Romney touring our troops in Tehran?

  2. John Stephenson

    John Ruddy – You can criticise someone while acknowledging that they are the lesser of two evils.

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