Right, Left agree: Obama had no intention of having an NSA debate before Snowden

Did Barack Obama really think that anyone would buy his claim last Friday that he wanted a debate on NSA surveillance programs all along, and that Edward Snowden’s leaks only complicated his ability to conduct it?  David Gregory asked Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, who called Obama’s suggestions for reform “window dressing“:

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Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that the program, which has come under fire from privacy advocates, was not against the law.

“I think when the story initial broke, the president went undercover,” McCain [sic] said. “He just finally came out last Friday with ways to try to salvage the program by window dressing.

“The problem, fundamentally, is he has failed to explain these programs, which are lawful, which have saved lives, which have stopped terrorist plots,” McCaul continued. “He has not adequately explained them, and now he’s in a bit of a mess because after the IRS scandal, where people don’t trust this government with their tax records, they sure don’t trust them with their phone records.”

McCaul said he saw “no evidence” that Obama was planning to discuss the surveillance program before its existence was leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“I think Snowden came out, leaked this information, and the White House has been backtracking ever since.”

Of course, that’s what one might expect to hear a Republican say — even one defending the NSA program such as McCaul. What about Democrats? A former aide to NSA critic Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) blasted Obama for claiming that he wanted a debate on the NSA, when the White House did almost everything in its power to keep Wyden from having one.  Jennifer Hoelzer points out that the time to have these debates would have been the several times Congress voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act and FISA laws during Obama’s term, and yet the President never said a word (via the Washington Examiner):

Really, Mr. President? Do you really expect me to believe that you give a damn about open debate and the democratic process? Because it seems to me if your Administration was really committed those things, your Administration wouldn’t have blocked every effort to have an open debate on these issues each time the laws that your Administration claims authorizes these programs came up for reauthorization, which — correct me if I am wrong — is when the democratic process recommends as the ideal time for these debates.

For example, in June 2009, six months before Congress would have to vote to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the Obama Administration claims gives the NSA the authority to collect records on basically every American citizen — whether they have ever or will ever come in contact with a terrorist — Senators Wyden, Feingold and Durbin sent Attorney General Eric Holder a classified letter “requesting the declassification of information which [they] argued was critical for a productive debate on reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act.”

In November 2009, they sent an unclassified letter reiterating the request, stating:

“The PATRIOT Act was passed in a rush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sunsets were attached to the Act’s most controversial provisions, to permit better-informed, more deliberative consideration of them at a later time. Now is the time for that deliberative consideration, but informed discussion is not possible when most members of Congress – and nearly all of the American public – lack important information about the issue.”Did President Obama jump at the opportunity to embrace the democratic process and have an open debate then? No. Congress voted the following month to reauthorize the Patriot Act without debate.

Read it all, as Hoelzer details all of the opportunities Obama had to make the NSA surveillance an issue and chose instead to shepherd its power.  Normally an administration would send out a flunky like Jay Carney to make this kind of baldly false claim. Having Obama do it is either desperate or amateurish, neither of which instills much confidence in the competency of this administration.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on February 01, 2023