For the second time in as many months, The New York Times on Thursday blasted the Obama administration for its surveillance practices — this time saying that the White House has “now lost all credibility” after reports that it has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers.
“Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it,” the Times said in a scathing editorial. “That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act … was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers.”
Just a few hours later, however, the Times inexplicably changed the wording of the editorial to say the administration has now lost “all credibility on this issue,” a much softer and different tone. No reason was given for the change.
Last month, the Times ripped the Justice Department for labeling Fox News reporter James Rosen as a possible “co-conspirator” in a criminal investigation of a news leak about North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
The administration has “moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news,” the newspaper’s editorial said last month.
This latest rebuke from the Times editorial board, which has long been friendly toward President Barack Obama and his administration, stems from news reports that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order issued in April.
According to The Guardian in London, the blanket order requires Verizon, the nation’s No. 2 telecommunications company, to hand over information on all calls in its systems — both within the United States and between the U.S. and other countries.
Verizon, based in New York, must provide the data on an “ongoing, daily basis” through July 19. The order was issued to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25.
The data include the numbers of both parties on a call, location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversations itself are not covered in the order, the Guardian reports.
While the order covers calls in Verizon’s business services division, “it seems very likely that it extends beyond Verizon’s business division,” the Times said in its editorial. “There is every reason to believe the federal government has been collecting every bit of information about every American’s phone calls except the words actually exchanged in those calls.”
Dismissing one Obama administration official’s observation that names of the callers are not collected as “lame,” the Times quoted the official as saying that the data are collected “to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”
“That is a vital goal,” the editorial concedes, “but how is it served by collecting everyone’s call data? The government can easily collect phone records (including the actual content of those calls) on ‘known or suspected terrorists’ without logging every call made.
“Essentially, the administration is saying that, without any individual suspicion of wrongdoing, the government is allowed to know who Americans are calling every time they make a phone call, for how long they talk and from where.
“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 repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy.”
The editorial also called defense of the practice by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “absurd” and challenged assertions by Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee’s GOP vice chairman, that the surveillance has “proved meritorious, because we have gathered significant information on bad guys and only on bad guys over the years.”
“But what assurance do we have of that,” the Times editorial asked, “especially since Ms. Feinstein went on to say that she actually did not know how the data being collected was used?”
The editorial then turned its attention to the president himself.
“Mr. Obama clearly had no intention of revealing this eavesdropping, just as he would not have acknowledged the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, had it not been reported in the press,” the Times said. “Even then, it took him more than a year and a half to acknowledge the killing, and he is still keeping secret the protocol by which he makes such decisions.
“We are not questioning the legality under the Patriot Act of the court order,” the Times editorial continued. “But we strongly object to using that power in this manner. It is the very sort of thing against which Mr. Obama once railed, when he said in 2007 that the Bush administration’s surveillance policy ‘puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.’”
The editorial even quoted Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, who attacked the NSA on Thursday for overstepping its authority with the secret order to collect the data on millions of Americans.
“As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation,” Sensenbrenner told the Times. “While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses.
“Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American,” he said.
As such, the Times editorial board concluded, “This stunning use of the act shows, once again, why it needs to be sharply curtailed if not repealed.”