By the time President Obama gave his news conference on Friday, there was really only one course to take on surveillance policy from an ethical, moral, constitutional and even political point of view. And that was to embrace the recommendations of his handpicked panel on government spying — and bills pending in Congress — to end the obvious excesses. He could have started by suspending the constitutionally questionable (and evidently pointless) collection of data on every phone call and email that Americans make.
He did not do any of that.
Sure, Mr. Obama thanked his panel for making 46 recommendations to restore the rule of law and constitutional principles to government surveillance activities. (The number alone casts a bad light on the president’s repeated claims that there really was nothing wrong with surveillance policy.) And he promised to review those ideas and let us know next month which, if any, he intends to follow.
But Mr. Obama has had plenty of time to consider this issue, and the only specific thing he said on the panel’s proposals was that it might be a good idea to let communications companies keep the data on phone calls and emails rather than store them in the vast government databases that could be easily abused. But he raised doubts about such a plan, and he left the impression that he sees this issue as basically a question of public relations and public perception.
Mr. Obama, who six months ago said that he thought the data collection struck the “right balance” between security and civil liberties, said on Friday that the government had not abused its access to private information. He continued to defend the mostly secret, internal protocols that the government uses to prevent abuse.
He kept returning to the idea that he might be willing to do more, but only to reassure the public “in light of the disclosures that have taken place.”
In other words, he never intended to make the changes that his panel, many lawmakers and others, including this page, have advocated to correct the flaws in the government’s surveillance policy had they not been revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks.
And that is why any actions that Mr. Obama may announce next month would certainly not be adequate. Congress has to rewrite the relevant passage in the Patriot Act that George W. Bush and then Mr. Obama claimed — in secret — as the justification for the data vacuuming.
Federal lawyers argued their way into a misreading of that passage, which deals with the collection of “business records” to stop or track down terrorists. But its intent, according to those who wrote the law, was never to allow the National Security Agency to collect and store data on every call and every email just in case it might be useful. That seems like a clear violation of the Constitution, as well as the spirit of the law.