The revelations this week that the federal government under President Obama has been collecting massive amounts of telephone and Internet data from tens of millions of Americans has re-opened strong divisions within both political parties, and presents questions for Democrats and Republicans alike.
For Obama, will he now finally step forward and acknowledge that which his administration's actions already show – that when it comes to the defense of our homeland and its citizens, President Bush was right?
And for Republicans, will we as a party make sure to not forget that, in fact, President Bush was right on this issue?
Let's start with Obama – just as with his flip-flops on the debt ceiling debate and the use of the military force without Congressional approval, we're reminded again that it's far easier to campaign for president than to confront the leadership responsibilities that come with actually being president. As senator, Obama routinely attacked Bush on this very issue and voted against extending the wiretap provisions in the Patriot Act. In a February 2006 speech on the Senate floor for example, he specifically decried what he called "false choices," saying in part:
"Now, at times this issue has tended to degenerate into an "either-or" type of debate. Either we protect our people from terror or we protect our most cherished principles. But that is a false choice. It asks too little of us and assumes too little about America."
He repeated that view in his 2009 Inaugural Address stating, "[W]e reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
Yet, at an event in California this morning, there was Obama embracing the exact opposite position, stating that in fact you have to find the "right balance" between security and privacy:
"I think it's important to understand that you can't have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
Regardless of how long it took him to get there, kudos to the president for standing up to the left wing of his party and continuing an aggressive prosecution of the war on terror in this regard.
As an American, it would concern me far more if our government were not using the technology and tools at its disposal, with proper Constitutional safeguards, to identify and disrupt terrorist plots that could kill thousands of our citizens. As an American, I'm far less concerned about anonymous government data mining than with the serious potential damage these leaks may have caused to our national security.
As a senator, Obama was wrong with both his rhetoric and his votes when it comes to the protection of the American people, and he should acknowledge that. More importantly, he should not allow growing pressure from the left in the wake of these disclosures to reverse the correct decisions he's made on these issues over the last five years.
Speaking of public political pressure, I'm also concerned that the further we get away from the horrors of 9/11, too many Americans, including a number of Republicans, overlook that it's not simply a coincidence we've not yet had a repeat attack on that scale in over 11 years. Whether it's extending due process to foreign terrorists, limiting the president's ability to target terrorists through drone strikes or ending a critical surveillance program that according to top officials was responsible for thwarting at least one major terrorist attack, a vocal minority in the Republican Party is taking us down a dangerous path and away from the successful leadership of President Bush on national security. As a party, we should continue to have a debate over civil liberties, but not allow ourselves to be pulled so far to the right that we're soon standing 180 degrees later with the American Civil Liberties Union and groups on the left.
To be sure, this does not diminish the questions and outrage many of us feel with the government overreach we've witnessed through ObamaCare and the targeting of tea party groups, but they should not be viewed through the same prism. For those who voted for the Patriot Act and who have long supported an aggressive defense of our homeland, those positions should not change simply because a member of the opposite party now occupies the White House.
As the right-leaning Wall Street Journaleditorial board correctly opined today:
Amid many real abuses of power, the political temptation will be to tie data-mining into a narrative about a government out of control. Such opportunism can only weaken our counterterror defenses and endanger the country.
This debate will continue in the weeks ahead, but members of both parties have questions to ask of themselves.
- Read Susan Milligan: Americans Should Blame Congress, Not Obama, for Phone Data Collection
- Read Peter Roff: Eric Holder, Fox News and the Assault on the First Amendment
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad
Updated 11/5/13: Brian Walsh remains a paid adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.