George W. Obama? With NSA spying, Obama feels wrath of the left

President Obama is having to explain and justify NSA surveillance of millions of Americans' phone records and Internet use. Critics on the left say he's too much like former president George W. Bush.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking in San Jose, Calif., Friday. The president defended his government's secret surveillance, saying Congress has repeatedly authorized the collection of America's phone records and U.S. internet use.

Into his fifth year in office, President Obama knows well attacks from the right. Obamacare, Benghazi, IRS shenanigans, he’s taken his lumps from Republicans and conservative activists. “Impeach him!” many cry. Only occasionally is he whacked from the left (see Guantánamo Bay prison camp).

But these days, it seems like the roles are reversed. Liberals are after Obama, while the likes of Republican political operative Karl Rove are in his corner.

The subject, of course, is government secret surveillance of phone records, a vacuum-cleaner approach whose purpose is heading off terrorist attacks but which pokes into what most people think of as private information.

“Big Data,” we are told, now includes the ability to surreptitiously obtain and store information from e-mail and social media, deriving information about peoples’ habits, friendships, and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers. And you thought those full-body scanners at the airport left you feeling a bit … naked.

As president and commander-in-chief in charge of preventing the next terrorist attack, Obama has to take responsibility and explain such snooping to the American people, which he tried to do Friday in California.

Still, says former vice president Al Gore, the recently-reported electronic spying is “obscenely outrageous.” The American Civil Liberties Union calls it “beyond Orwellian.”

David Corn at Mother Jones suggests that “the Obama gang may finally have a real scandal on its hand – not a scandal of wrongdoing or unethical conduct, but one of government overreach.”

The unkindest cut of all? That Obama is the same here as the man who launched the Iraq war, and then followed up with secret domestic spying – a point made angrily from the left and gleefully from the right.

“Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. Renditions. Military commissions. Obama is carrying out Bush’s fourth term, yet he attacked Bush for violating the Constitution,” Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, told, adding that Obama was “vindicating Bush.” You can almost hear the glee in his voice.

In a 1,134-word editorial Thursday, the usually-liberal New York Times writes that “the administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.”

“Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it,” the influential publication’s editorial board scolds.

“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 it repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy,” they write. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, the leading libertarian voice in the US Senate, couldn’t have put it better.

Beyond the hawks-vs.-civil libertarians debate, Obama finds himself in the middle of things that are more complex and a bit convoluted in Congress.

“The issue splinters the normal ideological coalitions across the House and Senate, cobbling together a civil libertarian collection of conservatives and liberals who are also distrustful of too much government power,” writes Paul Kane in the Washington Post. “The controversy also has created a political convergence among congressional leaders who have spent years fighting each other on other issues.”

And as was to be expected, some analysts now are weighing in less heatedly.

In an online column headlined “Stop Freaking Out About the NSA,” Slate writer William Saletan lists the ways in which the electronic data-gathering program is restrained.

“Is government surveillance worth worrying about?” he asks. “Sure. But even broad surveillance, per se, isn’t outrageous. What’s important is that the surveillance be warranted by real threats, appropriately limited, and supervised by competing branches of government. In this case, those standards have been met.”

Looking closely at the details of the case and the relevant laws and courts involved, Charles A. Shanor, professor of law at Emory Law, says he will “take my chances and trust the three branches of government involved in the Verizon request to look out for my interest.”

“Privacy advocates, civil libertarians, small-government activists and liberal media organizations are, of course, welcome to continue working to keep them honest,” he writes in a New York Times op-ed column. “But I will move back to my daily activities, free from paranoid concerns that my government is spying on me.”

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