Below is my column in Al Jazeera on the expansion of presidential powers in the United States. While there is growing recognition of the threat posed by the current powers exercised by the White House, it is important to keep the issue before the public if we are going to realign the tripartite system back to its original balance between the balances.
In the summer of 1787, a crowd gathered around Independence Hall to learn what type of government their representatives had formed for the new nation. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention, Mrs Powel could wait no longer. Franklin was one of the best known of the “Framers” working on the new US Constitution. Powel ran up to Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin turned to her and said what are perhaps the most chilling words uttered by any Framer. He said, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s words were more than a boast. They were a warning. The curious thing about a democratic system is that it contains the seeds of its own demise. Freedom is not something guaranteed by any parchment or promise. It is earned by each generation which must jealously protect it from threats, not only from outside, but from within a nation.
Some 226 years after those fateful words were uttered, the true import of Franklin’s warning has become all too real for Americans. The last 10 years has seen the rise of a security state of unprecedented size and the diminishment of privacy and core protections for citizens. Recently, a federal judge ruled that the massive NSA surveillance programme was unconstitutional. US District Court Judge Richard Leon not only said that the collection of “metadata” constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure, but that the Framers like Franklin would be “aghast” at the very thought of it.
The great irony is that the greatest loss of constitutional protections has occurred under a man who came to office promising to reform security laws and often refers to himself as a former constitutional law professor. An iconic figure for many liberals, President Barack Obama has divided the civil liberties community and expanded both the security state and his own unchecked powers. He has taken actions that would have made Richard Nixon blush – from warrantless surveillance to quashing dozens of privacy lawsuits, to claiming the right to kill any citizen, on his sole authority. He has also rolled back key international principles in expanding drone attacks and promising not to prosecute officials for torture.
Republican Senator Lindsay Graham scoffed at the notion that privacy is even relevant since only a terrorist would object to such powers.
War on privacy
With his healthcare programme mired in bureaucratic snafus and issues like gun control and immigration floundering in Congress, Obama is entering his final years in office with few clear successes. One of his most notable and ignoble successes has been in his war on privacy in the United States. Obama has not simply ordered massive surveillance of calls and emails of citizens, but he has campaigned to change people’s expectations of what privacy means. His administration advocates a surveillance-friendly form of privacy in a new fishbowl society where the government can track citizens in real time from their purchases and messages. Obama has attempted to convince citizens to trust the government and that they have nothing to fear because he will personally guarantee that these powers are not abused. At the same time, he has opposed any effort to get judicial review of these programs – beyond a laughable secret court with a history of rubber-stamping surveillance demands.
The result is a surveillance state of unprecedented size. Whistle blower Edward Snowden is now a hunted man under the protection of Russia. However, while Obama is demanding Snowden’s arrest, his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted to lying about the surveillance programmes before Congress. Yet, the Obama Administration has refused to investigate let alone prosecute him for perjury.
Snowden’s disclosures have revealed a massive surveillance system under Obama. The disclosures show that the US has intercepted communications of its closest allies like German Chancellor Andrea Merkel while intercepting calls around the world – 60 million calls in Spain alone. For US citizens, the government has created an almost total transparency in the collection of hundreds of millions of calls and emails. These calls are stored and security officials have instant access to information on the location, time and duration of communications. The Obama Administration has also put journalists under surveillance in an assault on the freedom of the press.
Other politicians have chimed in that only people with something to hide would be concerned over such surveillance. Thus, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham scoffed at the notion that privacy is even relevant since only a terrorist would object to such powers.
Of course, the government must often read your mail and listen to calls to determine if you are a terrorist…or just a target. A recent report documented how the National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity to be used to harm the reputation of people considered radicals. Among the targets is at least one individual identified as a “US person”. The NSA is gathering dirt such as “viewing sexually explicit material online”, and “using sexually explicit persuasive language when communicating with inexperienced young girls”. Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for National Intelligence, responded to media requests with little more than a shrug, saying such activities “should not be surprising” since the “the US government uses all of the lawful tools at our disposal” against people deemed enemies of the state. Of course, it is available at their disposal because of increased and unchecked powers assumed by this President.
Inside Story – The diplomatic cost of US surveillance
This “watch list” apparently includes people with unpopular views. The published documents refer to one target as attracting the NSA’s ire by arguing that, “Non-Muslims are a threat to Islam,” and then identified his vulnerability as “online promiscuity”. Another academic dared to write in support of the concept of “offensive jihad” and so the NSA targeted him for his “online promiscuity” and noted he “publishes articles without checking facts”.
Bush Administration officials are already applauding Obama for his administration’s gathering of dirt on targeted individuals. Indeed, supporters are now citing the president’s “kill list” as a rationale for this new controversial system under a lesser evil rationale. Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the NSA in the George W Bush administration, insisted that, “on the whole, it’s fairer and maybe more humane” than vaporizing them.
In a prior conference, Obama repeated the siren call of authoritarians throughout history: While these powers are great, our motives are benign. So there you have it. The government is promising to better protect you if you just surrender this last measure of privacy. Perhaps we deserve little better. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who warned: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and has testified before Congress on the dangerous expansion of presidential powers.