Backed Into Corner by GOP, Obama Ramps Up Electronic Snooping

Backed Into Corner by GOP, Obama Ramps Up Electronic Snooping

Story tools

A A AResize


When the Obama administration said it planned to give government and law enforcement agencies even greater access to personal e-mail communications of Americans, civil liberties groups should have run up the red flag. Administration officials say that given the level of the terrorist threat and the increasingly sophisticated use of technology and communications by foreign groups, the change is absolutely vital for national security.

The proposed regulatory changes, which will go to Congress next year, would require service providers to make the plain text of encrypted conversations over the phone, computer or e-mail available to law enforcement agencies.

The change in wiretap surveillance rules that President Obama demands is really no surprise. In a speech in 2003, the-then Illinois senator Obama lambasted the Patriot Act as "shoddy and dangerous." He pledged to take a closer look at the legality of some of the provisions if elected to the U.S. Senate. But Obama also added that he thought it was vital that government agencies have greater authority to monitor and eavesdrop on electronic communications to prevent possible terrorist acts.

Bush administration officials, of course, repeatedly made the same argument in pushing for expanded authorization to wiretap. The legal standards were continually loosened to the point where law enforcement agencies virtually had carte blanche to tap Americans no matter how flimsy the evidence of their connection to radical groups. It's questionable whether the new measures Obama backs are really needed to track alleged terrorists, since law enforcement has an array of new technologies from biometric tracking to DNA databases to gather information.

Still, Obama is willing to risk the ire of civil liberties groups, which have condemned the proposed changes as invasive, intrusive, and a gross violation of privacy rights. His reason goes beyond the simple belief that holes in America’s intelligence-gathering capacity needs patching. Like other Democratic presidents and candidates before him, Obama is hypersensitive to the standard GOP line of attack that moderate Democrats are soft on terrorism and national security. In countless speeches and private talks during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, Bill Clinton sternly warned the Democrats that if they wanted to hold onto the White House they had to seize the national security issue from the Republicans. That meant doing and saying nothing that stirred up public concerns fears that Democrats would be soft on national security and the war on terrorism.

Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore and John Kerry took Clinton's advice to heart, with disastrous results. They both tried to strike the tough-guy pose. At one point, Kerry even said that he'd launch preemptive strikes against terrorists wherever they were and that he would launch search-and-destroy missions to ferret out Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaeda.

Kerry kept slamming Bush as being weak and ineffective in fighting terrorism. He touted his military credentials as a Vietnam combat vet to supposedly prove that he could—and would—take as hard a line against terrorism as Bush.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama, with only slight stylistic tweaks, pretty much followed the same script as Kerry. He really had no choice. He was and continues to be viciously baited about the sound of his name, called an alien and anti-American, and wrongly labeled a Muslim. Tea Party leaders have  done everything to portray type as inherently questionable on the issues of terrorism and national defense, and worse, as unpatriotic.

During the campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain waved his credentials, like Bush before him, as the man you'd want to be in the driver's seat when it came to protecting national security. The not-so-subtle message was that Obama wasn't up to the challenge.

The polls backed up McCain on that claim. Nearly half of Americans said that Obama was not hard-nosed enough on national security. That, of course, raised hackles among Team Obama, and his aides took great pains to assert their military-preparedness credentials. Once in office, liberals grumbled that Obama backpedaled on his promises to dismantle the most odious of Bush's torture policies and to prosecute Bush officials accused of condoning torture and illegal wiretapping.

Obama’s failure to reverse Bush torture policies and his full embrace of the Patriot Act and expanded wiretapping are just another instance of a moderate Democratic president who, under the intense scrutiny of the military and GOP, does the politically expedient thing. In this case, Obama is trying to show that he will not shirk his responsibility on national security and terrorism, even if it entails embracing a dubious law that gives government agencies even greater license to snoop on Americans.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: