NSA PRISM Scandal: Obama's Call for a Debate is Disingenuous


Following the recent leaks by Edward Snowden that shone a light on the widespread extent of the U.S. surveillance state, the Obama administration said that it "welcomed" debate on its surveillance practices. Snowden, a 29-year-old former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and employee of consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked details of the agency's top-secret PRISM program and other surveillance practices. While it has criticized Snowden's actions and defended its surveillance practices, the White House has said that it welcomes the interest from Congress, the media, and the public in surveillance issues. There has even been a petition started to get Obama to follow through with his claim and have a public debate with Snowden on surveillance, which obviously will not happen.

Yet despite what it says, the Obama administration's claim to welcome debate is highly disingenuous and hollow given its actions to date. It is has kept these practices secret for years and is only claiming to welcome debate on surveillance practices now that it has been forced into publicly confronting the issue because of the attention generated by Snowden's actions.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that "the debate that's been sparked by these revelations — while we do not think that the revelation of secret programmes is in the national security interest of the U.S. — the broader debate about privacy and civil liberties [is something Obama] went out of his way to identify as one of the trade-offs we have to wrestle with [and] we'll have that debate." But while some people have been raising concerns about U.S. surveillance practices for years and calling for more transparency, it is only because of Snowden's leaks and the outrage that they have generated that the Obama administration has been forced to respond to the issue. If it were not for Snowden, or someone else leaking the information, then we would not be having a national, indeed international, discussion on this issue right now. 

As was the case with drones, in particular Rand Paul's marathon filibuster on the issue, when it comes to these sorts of issues, it is not until it is sufficiently pressured or embarrased into doing so that the government is willing to even consider revealing more about its practices. While the public debate over the use of drones largely sparked by Paul's actions has yet to lead to any real policy changes, it did to an extent, albeit a rather limited one, force the government to publicly confront the issue. As with drones before Paul's speech, people have been raising concerns about the government's surveillance practices for years but have largely failed to gain the attention required to force the government to respond. As Josh Gerstein of Politico points out, "for years, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) have been pleading with the administration" to be more transparent about its surveillance practices but the administration "largely rebuffed those calls." Instead it is only now, following Snowden's leaks, that the administration is even beginning to publicly acknowledge the existence of various gigantic surveillance programs.

The simple fact is that the White House could have chosen to be more transparent regarding its surveillance practices at any time, but it chose not to. Now it wants people to think that it welcomes a debate on the balance between civil liberties and national security. Except that, as the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf rightly notes, "if Obama values debate, he doesn't value it as much as keeping secrets that inevitably make debate impossible." The call for a debate reveals a pattern with the Obama administration, according to Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Meyers argues that "every time he [Obama] gets into trouble, he wants to have a debate, he wants to have a discussion." The reality is, however, that based on his actions rather than his rhetoric, which is an important distinction with Obama, he does not want a debate, but rather he is being forced to have one.

The benefit of whistle-blowers like Snowden is that they can force the issue, generating sufficient public attention and outrage for government to have to respond. Now the Obama administration has to endure a national debate on its surveillance practices, whether it likes it or not. If Obama really welcomed debate on these issues then he should also welcome leaks because it has taken this leak to spark a national debate. But obviously he is not going to be doing that anytime soon.