Appeared in print: Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is expanding its already-excessive domestic surveillance powers.
In its Monday edition, The New York Times reported that the agency soon will issue a new operations manual that gives its 14,000 agents more leeway to sift through databases, paw through household trash and deploy surveillance teams to snoop on everyday Americans, even if investigators lack firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.
The new manual, the existence of which was confirmed by FBI officials, comes on the heels of a warning by Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the Obama administration has devised a secret legal theory of the Patriot Act that is at stark contrast with a plain reading of the text.
“When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry,” Wyden said.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was fiercely critical of George W. Bush’s policies. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush contended there were few, if any, constraints on his powers to wage his “war on terror.”
As president, Obama has embraced, even expanded, a dismaying number of those policies and lobbied for their continuation, including an extension of the sweeping surveillance powers that were embedded in the Patriot Act. Other examples abound, including Obama’s reaffirmation of the Bush administration’s “state secrets” doctrine, which allows the government to shut down a trial on the grounds that it would reveal sensitive information.
Americans need an executive branch that is vigilant about safeguarding this nation from terrorists. But they don’t need one that threatens their privacy and undermines due process of law.
Every time the government expands its authority to investigate people, it opens the door to potential abuses. One need only recall the Justice Department’s inspector general’s findings in 2007 that the FBI had routinely misused “national security letters,” which allow agents to obtain information such as phone records without a court warrant.
Obama ran for president promising to stop — and reverse — the erosion of fundamental rights that the Bush administration took to unprecedented levels. Instead, Obama has embraced key elements of his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies and even has sought to expand some of them. The FBI’s new domestic surveillance manual is just one example.
Obama’s supporters have ample reason to be disappointed by the president’s civil liberties record. They also have a right to be disappointed in their representatives in Congress, who repeatedly have failed to exercise their constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch and to restore essential constitutional checks and balances nearly a decade after Sept. 11, 2001.
The question is not whether the Obama administration should aggressively pursue the terrorists and other bad guys who want to harm this nation. Of course it should. The question is whether the chief executive is balancing the powers that the government needs against the liberties on which the country was founded.
So far, it’s a balance that Obama has failed to achieve.