“Breaking a Promise on Surveillance,” is the headline of a New York Times editorial this morning. At issue is an Obama administration proposal to allow the FBI to obtain lists of anyone’s email correspondents and web browsing history by issuing a National Security Letter without going to court. The proposal now being put forward, explains a senior administration official quoted by the Washington Post, would enable the FBI “to intercede in plots earlier than we would if our hands were tied and we were unable to get this data in a way that was quick and efficient.”
The proposal has been greeted with a chorus of denunciations from civil liberties groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “a stunning and brazen request. They're asking Congress to reward bad behavior by allowing even more bad behavior.” The Times has now joined in, denouncing the administration for taking an “unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign.”
All of which raises an interesting question. President Obama is perhaps the most liberal president in our history. As a candidate for office eighteen months ago, he was emphatically promising to rein in surveillance “abuses.” Why is he now switching into reverse and embracing the very Bush administration policies that he campaigned against?
The obvious place to look for an answer is the intelligence that is now flowing daily across the president’s desk. It includes an alarming picture of threats to the homeland. In just the past half-year alone, we have seen some of them--in Fort Hood, in the skies over Detroit, and in Times Square--come to fruition. Others, like a Madrid-style bombing attack on the New York City subway system, were averted by law enforcement, with the use of, among other techniques, electronic surveillance.
The dangers we face are real, and with power comes responsibility. President Obama, no longer a candidate but a man accountable under the Constitution for providing “for the common defense,” is willing to bend on civil liberties to come to grips with the menace. This is not a happy outcome for our privacy or our freedoms, but it is one forced upon us by a campaign of terror that we ignore at our peril.