Saturday, June 8, 2013

Commander-in-chief tries to ease surveillance fears

US President Barack Obama

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls": US President Barack Obama. Photo: Getty Images

Anyone expecting contrition from the US President after revelations that his administration's vast electronic surveillance apparatus has been directed at the American people would have been disappointed by Barack Obama's first public comments on the issue.

Basically, he told people to get used it.

''Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,'' said the President during a press conference on Friday, held just hours before his crucial meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

''That's not what this program is about,'' he continued. ''As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at the numbers and durations of calls. They're not looking at names and they're not looking at content, but sifting through this so-called meta data. They may identify potential leads with respect to people that might engage in terrorism.''

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Obama's justification for his government's vast surveillance operation is manifold.

First, he argues that it works. Conceding that as he campaigned for office he was sceptical of the growth of the intelligence and security network that grew explosively after the September 11 attacks. He says his team analysed the data-mining programs and ''scrubbed them thoroughly'' on winning office.

''My assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content … it was worth us doing.''

The President's claim that the surveillance is working is hard to judge, given that details remain secret. It is worth noting though that congressional intelligence committee members from both parties made similar points on Thursday, with one Republican going so far as to say a planned attack had been foiled.

Either way, Obama will not be the first politician to embrace powers in office that appalled him as a candidate.

Second, he says while the programs were classified they were not secret, because all members of Congress were aware of the phone data collection, and members of the intelligence committees were aware of the internet data-mining operation.

''These are the folks you all vote for as your representative in Congress, and they're being fully briefed on these programs,'' he said.

Finally, Obama points out that along with congressional oversight there is judicial protection in the form of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which must approve and renew applications to gather the data in the first place.

That might be of more comfort if the proceedings of the court were not secret, and if the court was not so ready to grant applications - to date it has not turned down a single application.

''If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure we're abiding by the Constitution, then we're going to have some problems here,'' Obama said.

And perhaps this is the real revelation of the past few days.

For more than a decade, Americans have allowed governments of both parties to whittle away at their freedom and privacy in the interests of security.

They were sacrifices many were willing to make, especially when threats seemed imminent and trust in institutions was maintained.

But Americans do not trust Congress at present. It is widely considered to be a broken institution and it has just a 15 per cent approval rating.

Many don't trust the executive either. Though the President won the election by about 5 million votes, many of those who voted against him did not because they thought the other guy might do a better job, but because they hated Barack Obama.

And they can hardly be expected to trust a secret court that many had never heard of.

''I think on balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about,'' Obama said.

In the current climate, that seems unlikely.


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