There’s some disturbing language coming out of the Obama transition team on the matter of federal government spying against American citizens. Contradicting the hopes of those voters who had convinced themselves that Obama vote in support of the infamous FISA Amendments Act, Obama’s transitional advisers are now indicating that President Obama will preserve much of George W. Bush’s spying infrastructure, probably including parts of the infrastructure that have been caught spying on innocent Americans – even eavesdropping on husbands and wives in military families, listening in as they have phone sex.
Here’s an example, taken from a Wall Street Journal article on the subject, of the kind of justification that Obama supporters are offering for this betrayal of Obama’s promise to uphold the Constitution:
‘He’s going to take a very centrist approach to these issues,’ said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations. ‘Whenever an administration swings too far on the spectrum left or right, we end up getting ourselves in big trouble.’
Can anybody point out to me an example of an American presidential administration that swung “too far” to the left on matters of government spying, “getting ourselves in big trouble” because the Bill of Rights and its protection against unreasonable search and seizure was followed too strictly? I’m looking back through the historical record on the matter, and I can’t find any such instance.
September 11, 2001 certainly doesn’t count as such an instance. Thanks to congressional hearings, we know that President Bush was given briefings that Al Quaida planned to engage in an attack using tactics such as flying airplanes into buildings. Besides that, the state of government spying when Bill Clinton left office was not at all leftist utopia of respect for civil liberties. Back in the 1990s, we wrote in protest against the Clinton Administration’s efforts to construct a domestic espionage program, through spying programs such as Carnivore and Echelon. If the attacks of September 11 count as anything, it’s as an example of the failure of unconstitutional electronic surveillance.
The knee-jerk reaction of right wing Clinton Democrats doesn’t apply here. There is no left wing danger on the spying issue. All the left wants is for the government to stop spying on Americans, and to obey the Constitution. That’s hardly radical.
We won’t know what Barack Obama will or won’t do until he actually becomes President in January. However, so far, what we’re hearing from the Obama transition team is a lot of preemptive explanations for preserving the status quo. John Brennan, co-leader of Obama’s transition team on spying, sounded a lot like a Bush Administration spokesman when he said that his team would “be looking at existing executive orders, then making sure from Jan. 20 on there’s going to be appropriate executive branch oversight of intelligence functions”.
Under Bush, Executive Branch oversight of spying has been part of the problem, with spy masters being accountable to no one outside of the White House. The Bush White House has demonstrated the dangers of the concentration of power within the Executive. We need more congressional oversight and judicial oversight of the Executive Branch, not just the promise of executive branch self-oversight. If Barack Obama thinks that he can solve the problem through an exertion of his own personal integrity, while keep shutting the judicial and legislative branches out of the process, then he doesn’t understand the depth of the constitutional crisis created by George W. Bush.
I hope that I’m wrong, but so far, it looks as if Barack Obama is tempted to keep the autocratic presidential powers established by the Bush Administration in place. Perhaps he thinks he can use those powers for good, but the maintenance of those powers in itself is a threat to our nation.