The New York Times editorial board on Friday blasted the Obama administration over the disclosure of a program that collects the phone records of millions of Americans, arguing the administration has “lost all credibility” in balancing the privacy of Americans with national security concerns.
The piece from the Times board , traditionally supportive of Obama and liberal causes, comes as the president is facing heightened criticism from even Democrats over two national security programs whose details were leaked to the press this week. The government, as the British newspaper the Guardian first reported this week, is requiring Verizon to hand over information about all calls made on its systems to the National Security Administration.
In addition, as the Washington Post reported, the NSA and FBI have been secretly accessing the servers of large Internet companies like Google and Facebook to get information, such as e-mails and pictures, about foreigners the government believes could be planning attacks against the U.S.
Both programs started under the Bush administration and were deemed lawful and continued by Obama.
“Essentially, the administration is saying that without any individual suspicion of wrongdoing, the government is allowed to know whom Americans are calling every time they make a phone call, for how long they talk and from where,” the Times argued. “This sort of tracking can reveal a lot of personal and intimate information about an individual. To casually permit this surveillance — with the American public having no idea that the executive branch is now exercising this power — fundamentally shifts power between the individual and the state, and it repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy.”
The president held an impromptu press conference on Friday to address concerns about both programs.
“”They are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata they might identify potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism,” Obama said, referring specifically to the collection of phone records.
He added, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
Defending how he has balanced security with privacy, the president said “You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”
Some members of Congress in both parties have defended the programs, arguing they are essential to American safety.
But the disclosures have reignited a debate about whether Obama, a former constitutional law professor, gives sufficient regard to civil liberties. Only two weeks ago, the president gave a speech in which he pledged to narrow the scope of his program of drone strikes against suspected terrorists abroad and ordered the Justice Department to meet with key media organizations after DOJ officials had angered many journalists by obtaining the phone records of reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News.
At the same time, the administration, despite protests of many Democrats and some Republicans, argues the drone strikes and prosecutions of officials who leak national security information to journalists are proper and necessary.