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Big Brother at work

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Maybe President Obama is able to reconcile his words and his actions, but my head is spinning.

This was Barack Obama on May 23, speaking at the National Defense University: "For over two centuries, the United States has been bound together by founding documents that defined who we are as Americans, and served as our compass through every type of change.... battlefields have changed and technology has evolved. But our commitment to constitutional principles has weathered every war...."

After 9/11, "we strengthened our defenses – hardening targets, tightening transportation security, giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror.... Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy."

"... the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it."

"... the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends."

And now we learn that the federal government has been scooping up the records of every phone call Americans make. Government agencies know what phone numbers we've called, what calls we've received, how long we've talked.

And if we've been e-mailing or using social media to correspond with foreigners, it's entirely possible that the government, through a separate program called Prism, has access to what we've said.

National-security officials assure us that Prism targets only foreigners, but that's small comfort. The Washington Post reports that operators "key in 'selectors,' or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target's 'foreignness.'"

That's not, as the Post says, "a very stringent test."

And besides: as Scott Lemieux put it in The American Prospect last week, "the American government collaborating with corporations to invade the privacy of non-Americans who in many cases seem to be targeted without individualized suspicion is worthy of condemnation itself."

These are not programs that get information only about people national-security officials suspect are terrorists. These programs can provide information about all of us; government agents search that information looking for hints that somebody might be a terrorist.

Just picture this in the hands of Richard Nixon or J. Edgar Hoover.

President Obama seems to have convinced himself that he has struck the "balance" he referred to in his National Defense University speech. And that he is "constraining" his presidential power, not abusing it.

But two of the few Senators who knew about this – intelligence committee members Ron Wyden and Mark Udall – disagree, and they tried to warn the public last year. Late last week, Wyden and Udall said that based on what they know, they believe the government could have gotten the information it needed "through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans."

Glenn Greenwald, who broke the phone-records story in The Guardian, wrapped up his article with a quote from the late Idaho Senator Frank Church, who chaired a Congressional committee in the 1970's that investigated government surveillance and covert operations: "The NSA's capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter."

In his speech at the National Defense University, President Obama emphasized that we face more than one kind of terrorism, not all of it from foreigners. The Boston and Oklahoma City terrorists were Americans. At what point will the government start scrutinizing Americans' e-mails and Facebook postings looking for signs of domestic terrorism? Are the lives of victims of domestic terrorism less valuable than those of foreign terrorists' victims?

At this point, given the president's commitment to these programs, we'll have to depend on Congress to try to reverse course. But with this Congress, that will take enormous public pressure. The time to start exerting that pressure is now.

"These are not programs that get information only about suspected terrorists. These programs can provide information about all of us."

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