President Obama’s speech today on the NSA’s data collection programs satisfied hardly anyone. Few of his proposals will actually take effect any time soon, if at all, and his supposed safeguard against misuse of telephone metadata–it will still be collected and stored, just not by the NSA–is likely to make the situation worse, not better. Substantively, the most significant change is that the NSA will be required to obtain a court order for each search that it wants to run on the data it collects. In principle, I think this is a good idea, but who has any idea how many queries are run against the NSA databases? My guess is that the number is large, which means that there could be substantial delays unless either adequate judicial manpower is made available to review such requests, or the requests are simply rubber-stamped.
The debate over “spying” takes place in the shadow of the IRS scandal and other efforts the Obama administration has made to use the organs of federal power to suppress political opposition. Put bluntly, scarcely anyone trusts the Obama administration not to use any information its agencies may gather for political advantage.
Thus, for example, several of my friends who contributed substantially to Republican candidates in the 2010 election cycle were promptly audited by the IRS in 2011. One Republican contributor I know was hauled before a grand jury last year by a partisan U.S. Attorney. The U.S. Attorney’s office subpoenaed his email and bank accounts and interviewed his business associates, threatening at least one of them with criminal prosecution if he failed to provide information damaging to the Republican contributor. Nothing came of it because there was no wrongdoing to be found, but the prospect of having your bank, phone or email records subpoenaed by a Democratic U.S. Attorney, and being questioned before a grand jury on the flimsiest of pretexts, is obviously chilling. No doubt some Republicans have been deterred from contributing to political campaigns by the Obama administration’s record of partisan abuse. Then, too, they have the example of the Democrats’ insane attacks on Charles and David Koch, which have been going on for years now. Who would want to subject himself to that kind of harassment?
I have always been sympathetic to the national security needs of agencies like the NSA, and I certainly trust the NSA more than more partisan agencies, like the Department of Justice. But the reality is that the Obama administration can’t be trusted, and everyone knows it, including Democrats. This is the subtext that animates the current debate.