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FOR RELEASE TUESDAY, JAN. 21, 2014
PAULS AND PAULICY
BY BOB FRANKEN
He may have gone to Harvard Law School and all that, but President Barack Obama’s grasp of lessons learned from history leaves a little bit to be desired. He was certainly off-base when he tried to justify the massive National Security Agency surveillance by citing the Revolutionary War’s Sons of Liberty and Paul Revere: “At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots.”
It’s not often I quote Sen. Rand Paul, but he had a terrific response on CNN: “Paul Revere was warning us that the British were coming, not that the Americans were coming.” Great sound bite, but Paul (Rand) went on to point out that the Fourth Amendment was included in the Constitution because the British rulers had this nasty habit of forcing their way into colonists’ home to rifle through belongings, without needing a warrant. It sounds like today’s national-security letters permitted by the so-called Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand material from Americans without a warrant. They also forbid the recipient from telling anyone. The president said nothing in his speech about reforming that.
In fact, his address offered very little except lip service when it comes to reining in an intelligence establishment that has been shown to use today’s mind-boggling technology to scoop up every shred of our privacy. We wouldn’t have known about any of it had it not been for Edward Snowden, who had the audacity to expose all these intrusions. In the process, Snowden has had to flee a country where a furious national-security establishment is waiting to severely punish him for blowing the whistle. Mr. Obama had little to say about him, other than to repeat the mantra that he revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
As for the “reforms” the president did announce, most of them have loopholes big enough to fly a drone through. But his flimsy changes were really beside the point. The speech was an attempt to calm fears of a government running wild, its spies systematically abusing the rights of its citizens. It is not unreasonable to worry that overexuberant U.S. intelligence agencies will use their supercomputers to delve into the personal lives of all of us. In fact, thanks to the Snowden disclosures, we know they already are doing just that. It is not a stretch to worry that the pilotless aircraft police departments are clamoring to get inevitably will be used in ways that invade our space. Authorities contend that the extensive use of these modern tools is necessary to keep our society safe. It’s the same argument they made about torture, which presumably our interrogators are not using, although there’s little doubt that they still would be had their tactics not been exposed by media reports. Officials always fight a bitter battle to shut down any coverage of their questionable activities. This administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to punish leaks -- up to and including snooping through journalists’ records.
Much has been made about how candidate Obama has morphed into a president with views that have really changed about such things. To be as fair as can be, we should note that he now gets to see stuff about dangers that we don’t. That’s a big part of the problem: We’re kept in the dark. Even when someone is demonstrably abused and sues, government lawyers often succeed in getting the cases thrown out because they would disclose state secrets.
Clearly, there is a mortal threat from terrorists, but I’ll use up my Rand Paul quota by noting what he said that the other Paul didn’t: “The Americans are coming.” Hopefully that won’t become a threat.
© 2014 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.