All those Americans who were worried that the NSA could be abusing its alarmingly wide discretion to collect telephone data to track their locations can now rest easy. The Wall Street Journal reports that, while NSA officials are legally allowed to use data ”that can pinpoint the location of callers,” they choose not to.

Because of concerns about intruding on Americans civil liberties? Nah. Mainly because “the data doesn’t provide sufficient intelligence value to justify the resources that would be required to use it.”…

As Locke labored to point out, much of the task of governance is ultimately a matter of prudence. But saying, ‘Trust us, we’re good guys” is not a particularly reassuring defense — especially from this administration.


Why did you wait to release the documents if you said you wanted to tell the world about the NSA programs since before Obama became president?


Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge…

This disclosure provides Obama an opportunity to appeal for a return to sanity, constitutional policy, and the rule of law rather than men. He still has plenty of time to go down in history as the President who looked into the abyss and stepped back, rather than leaping forward into it. I would advise he personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs, repudiate the dangerous “State Secrets” privilege, and, upon preparing to leave office, begin a tradition for all Presidents forthwith to demonstrate their respect for the law by appointing a special investigator to review the policies of their years in office for any wrongdoing. There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny – they should be setting the example of transparency.

Charlie Rose: But there is a balance here.

Barack Obama: But there is a balance, so I’m going to get to your — get to your question. The way I view it, my job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. And so every program that we engage in, what I’ve said is “Let’s examine and make sure that we’re making the right tradeoffs.” Now, with respect to the NSA, a government agency that has been in the intelligence gathering business for a very long time —…

Barack Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…. The whole point of my concern, before I was president — because some people say, “Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.” Dick Cheney sometimes says, “Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.” My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.

Now, one last point I want to make, because what you’ll hear is people say, “Okay, we have no evidence that it has been abused so far.” And they say, “Let’s even grant that Obama’s not abusing it, that all these processes — DOJ is examining it. It’s being renewed periodically, et cetera — the very fact that there is all this data in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse,” because they’ll say, you know, “You can — when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up, if there’s a call to an oncologist, and there’s a call to a lawyer, and — you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person’s dying, and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information.” All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal.

The three-page document regarding the NSA programs was released to congressional intelligence committees and states the plots were thwarted in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries. The data is destroyed every five years, according to the document.

The officials also said the NSA checked just 300 phone numbers last year against its database of millions of U.S. phone records gathered daily, an attempt to argue the surveillance programs are less sweeping than alleged.

They also said they are working to declassify information on the dozens of plots NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said were disrupted, to show Americans the value of the programs, but said they want to make sure they don’t inadvertently reveal parts of the U.S. counterterrorism playbook in the process.

Asked whether Obama feels he has violated the privacy of Americans, McDonough said, “He does not.”…

McDonough said Congress authorized the programs as a way to thwart plots against Americans and that lawmakers should stay up to date on how they are run. The administration has said the program collected only “metadata” – raw information that does not identify individual telephone subscribers and did not monitor calls.

The president is not saying ‘trust me.’ The president is saying I want every member of Congress, on whose authority we are running this program, to understand it, to be briefed about it, and to be comfortable with it,” he said.

When first asked about the program by a reporter June 7, Obama said he trusts in the oversight system in place, and gave assurances that the system involves all three branches of government. “In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok,” he said, “but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

But the ordinary citizen can’t look at the details.

In the same answer, the president said, “I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

But we wouldn’t be having this debate if everyone followed the law and there was no leak.

As much as the conspiratorial left and right would like to believe that big super-secret bureaucracies like the NSA are easily capable of violating our constitutional rights, the truth is surely the other way round: Civil liberties are much more likely to be in danger when smaller organizations—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the CIA, or the Secret Service—with specific, highly selective targeting requirements, abuse their surveillance authority or, in the case of Langley with its drones, their war-related authority. And it’s doubtful that the national-security institutions since 9/11 have engaged in practices that fundamentally challenge anyone’s constitutional rights—the possible big exceptions would be the FBI’s counterterrorist practices against militant Muslim Americans that have occasionally tiptoed close to entrapment and the bureau’s extensive use of national-security letters that can allow curious minds to wander freely through the personal lives of targeted individuals. If the government sensibly gives the Secret Service the capacity to intercept cellular telephone calls as a means to protect preemptively American VIPs, its officers may well monitor the salacious conversations of Washington celebrities or sexually adventurous co-eds at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Adults are always required to ensure that such practices don’t become anything more than bad-boy behavior. All organizations run amok unless adults are present.

The huge high-tech intelligence bureaucracies, like smaller outfits such as the operations and technology directorates within the CIA, are extremely difficult for senior government officials to manipulate and abuse because of the many overlapping and checking authorities in these institutions. Unlike the IRS, intelligence agencies are not designed to interact with the citizenry, nor do they have or want prosecutorial power. The intelligence agencies grow uneasy, sometimes even too cautious, when foreign threats develop a domestic dimension…

This is the better question provoked by Snowden’s paranoia: How much money has Congress spent on these data-collection projects? We are told, both by administration officials and by congressmen, that the NSA’s PRISM project, marrying Ft. Meade with Silicon Valley, has stopped numerous terrorist attacks. Perhaps. But it would behoove us all to question that assertion.

Worst of all, the cult of the whistleblower reveals the mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking, of the belief that dark forces rule over a weak and emaciated public that is kept in blissful ignorance. The crossover between respectable worshippers of whistleblowers and irrational purveyors of crank theories is great. So Alex Jones, infamous conspiracy theorist, is naturally a massive fan of Snowden. Today’s Guardian has a list of ‘brave whistleblowers’, which includes Annie Machon, formerly of MI5 and now a notorious ‘9/11 Truther’. That former icon Assange has written cranky essays with titles like ‘Conspiracy as Governance’. Meanwhile, a top Guardian columnist says the Snowden revelations ‘seem to confirm all the old bug-eyed conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us’.

That’s the real impact of the cult of the whistleblower – the further promotion, among polite society as well as impolite, of the idea that evil networks control the unenlightened horde. It isn’t true. Yes, there are numerous attacks on our civil liberties today, but you know what? We are more than capable of seeing who is carrying them out, and of doing something about them, without needing a secular icon of ‘truth’ to hold our hands or massage our allegedly tiny minds.

If this poll is part of a trend, Obama still may be able to recover. But he would need to take immediate steps to show accountability, transparency, and credibility.

No more slow-walking the truth as the White House did with the cause of the Benghazi attacks and with the names of West Wing officials notified about IRS targeting.

No more lies, such as the IRS claiming for months that the targeting did not take place, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the existence of the NSA programs weeks before they were revealed.

No more doublespeak such as the president earnestly claiming, “Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed” of the NSA programs. He knew that wasn’t quite true, or should have known…

There is no time to waste. Obama already has earned the ignominious distinction of running against Bush’s surveillance programs, then adapting it as president, and expanding it. Does he also want to repeat his predecessor’s credibility crisis?

He explained, “I once asked a collective group, the big nine [congressional leaders], in the spring of ’04, in the briefing when we first briefed them and said, ‘Do you think we ought to continue the program,’ and they said absolutely yes. I said, ‘Do you think we ought to go back to Congress to get additional authorization,’ and they said absolutely not. It’ll leak.”