Surveillance: The Clash between Senator Obama and President Obama

Friday, August 09, 2013

On the issue of government surveillance, President Barack Obama bears little resemblance to Senator Barack Obama before he won the White House.


It’s been widely reported that under President Obama, the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected huge volumes of phone records belonging to all Verizon Business Network Services subscribers, as well as those subscribing to Sprint and AT&T. The NSA sifts through this information looking through the phone records of Americans with two or three degrees of separation from suspected terrorists.


In response to this news, members of the U.S. House introduced an amendment that would have dismantled the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program—a plan that the Obama White House condemned.


But five years ago, Senator Obama cosponsored a bill that would have limited bulk records collection by the NSA. That bill died in committee, as did a similar measure introduced in 2005, which Senator Obama also backed.


In 2008, Senator Obama supported a plan to require government analysts to get court approval before accessing incidentally collected American data.


But under President Obama, NSA analysts don’t need court approval to look at previously-collected bulk metadata, including domestic metadata.


“Instead, the NSA limits access to incidentally collected American data according to its own “minimization” procedures. A leaked 2009 document said that analysts only needed permission from their ‘shift coordinators’ to access previously-collected phone records,” wrote Kara Brandeisky of ProPublica.


Senator Obama also called for presidential administrations to tell Congress how many American communications were collected during surveillance.


But under President Obama, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, I. Charles McCullough III, told Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) in 2012 that it was impossible to estimate how many American communications were incidentally collected, and that to even try would amount to a violation of Americans’ privacy rights.


As a senator, Obama wanted more restrictions on the use of gag orders related to surveillance court orders. He co-sponsored two bills that would have made it more difficult for the government to issue nondisclosure orders to businesses when compelling them to turn over customer data.


But the Obama administration has used gag orders to prevent companies from disclosing information about surveillance requests.


Finally, Senator Obama supported ways to give a person under surveillance a chance to challenge the government’s spying on them.


This contrasts with what prosecutors in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Obama have done by not informing defendants what kind of surveillance was used to watch them.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President (by Kara Brandeisky, ProPublica)

Watch Obama Promise to Never Wiretap Americans in This 2007 Speech (by Aubrey Bloomfield, Policymic)

Candidate Obama Debates President Obama on Government Surveillance (YouTube)


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