Dan Amira of New York Magazine posted a video juxtaposing President Obama's defense of the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs with former President George W Bush's own defense of NSA surveillance practices during his presidency. And as Amira argued, "seven years apart, history appears to be repeating itself."
While both Obama and Bush stressed that they would protect the privacy of American's, they also respectively defended the surveillance practices as necessary to counter threats to national security.
The similarity of Obama and Bush's attitudes to surveillance is not surprising given that a clear line can be drawn from the surveillance policies enacted under Bush after 9/11 and the ones that Edward Snowden recently revealed are being used under Obama.
As Amira's article points out, Bush said that the "privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," while Obama spoke of the "a constitutional right to privacy." Both also spoke of their commitment to protecting the American people, and argued that their surveillance practices play a key role in this. And yet, despite their twin promises, believing in the false choice between civil liberties and national security, both were willing to sacrifice the privacy of Americans, and foreigners too, at the altar of national security. And both argued that intelligence leaks that revealed the extent of the surveillance state hurt the government's ability to spy on people without justification ... wait, sorry, I meant defeat the enemy or the terrorists or something vague like that.
As a timeline published by Mother Jones shows, under Bush, the government's electronic surveillance powers were expanded by the PATRIOT Act and the NSA was secretly given permission to monitor domestic communications without a warrant. Bush also signed the FISA Amendments Act which gave the government power to compel telecom companies to provide access to customer data and granted companies legal immunity for participating in the NSA's warrantless surveillance program. NSA's PRISM program began operating under Bush but expanded under Obama, who also renewed the PATRIOT Act and signed a five year extension to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
It is indicative of the similar attitudes to state surveillance during the Bush and Obama presidencies that a number of former Bush officials, including former vice president Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and former Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, have come out and defended the NSA's surveillance practices. Bush himself has also reportedly defended them, arguing that they are necessary because America is "still at risk" of attacks from. Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued both the Bush and Obama administration's over their surveillance practices, arguing that they violated the Constitution.
Obama supporters and Democrats have defended him, claiming that the surveillance programs operating under his presidency are different from those under Bush. The bipartisan (although some lawmakers on both sides have also spoken out against it) defense of government surveillance practices highlights the fact, as the Guardian's Gary Younge argues, that this issue is about more than just whether Obama is worse than Bush or not. While acknowledging that Obama is guilty of "brazenly ostentatious flip-flops" from what he said during his campaign, such as vowing to protect civil liberties, to what he has done in office, Younge argues that "we should not be too shocked" about the continuities between Bush and Obama. "When given the choice of representing the interests of those who voted for him and the interests of American military and economic hegemony, he chose the latter."
The issue of state surveillance, as with other issues, is therefore not about Republicans, or Democrats, or Independents, but rather about the powerful versus the powerless. To paraphrase the work of presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek, despite ostensibly campaigning against the commitments of the established regime, Obama has largely upheld them since taking office; he is no reconstructive president. And it is this established regime itself, one which has seen overreach of government power and the erosion of civil liberties based on vague justifications, not necessarily a Republican or Democratic president, that must be challenged.