The NSA, whose charter permits spying only on foreign nationals, has acted with near impunity in its use of data with FISA courts, which are meant to provide oversight of potential abuses but in reality have turned down only a handful out of thousands of NSA surveillance requests.
Total Information Awareness, a discontinued 2003 Bush program to “break down the stovepipes” between commercial and government databases, has been resurrected by Obama. Despite promises to end Bush abuses, Obama has permitted the NSA to turn its astounding surveillance power inwards.
Even though Republicans and Democrats constantly bicker about the economy and healthcare, on national security the political class has been remarkably united for decades. Since the Clinton presidency, which lobbied for nearly all the law enforcement tools we now see written in the PATRIOT Act, state surveillance powers been extended.
As far back as 1994, Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick claimed that “the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes”. And five years later, going almost unnoticed, FBI warrantless wiretapping was slipped into the Intelligence Authorization Act.
By October 2001 the NSA, whose purpose in the security structure had become uncertain following the Cold War, was granted far-reaching powers to track domestic communications of suspected terrorists. The program was declared unconstitutional in 2006 — but appealed the following year — after NSA spying on two American lawyers of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation.
Despite these policies breaching the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, designed to prevent the wiretapping of the Nixon era, we know that Obama, aided by the NSA's improved surveillance and storage technology, has taken this trend further than his predecessors ever imagined.
Cross-party support for abuses goes beyond just surveillance. Since Clinton, assassinations have become central to U.S. national security policy, going as far as assassinating an American citizen and his 16-year-old sons without trial or evidence.
And although the drone assassination program began under Bush, complemented by persisting allegations of an an executive assassination ring reporting to Dick Cheney, authorization for covert killings can be traced, again, to Clinton. The Gerald Ford ban on assassination was ruled inapplicable to "military targets” or "attacks carried out in preemptive self-defense", leaving the door open for the abuses seen in the last decade.
Just like excessive surveillance, support for extralegal assassination goes beyond party divisions. The issue is kept out of the spotlight and avoided in presidential debates, only brought up when some new revelation forces familiar denials and justifications.
From borderless wars and drone strikes, to kill lists and the persecution of whistleblowers, national security remains a depoliticized issue in the United States. With contempt for civil rights reaching across multiple administrations, and supporters in Congress belonging to both parties, Americans remain unable to cast their vote against the national security state.
For more updates on national security and other stories, follow me on Twitter at @alexebennett.