Will Obama be remembered as the Snooper President?

The President is caught riding rough-shod over privacy for the second time in a month.

This is a bad one. At 7:05PM last night, the Guardian published this story, that the National Security Administration had, using a top secret court order, been collecting all of the phone data from Verizon, one of America's biggest phone networks. Not just some of the data; not just of certain individuals under specific investigation: all of it. Every single customer.

It seems Obama will be remembered as the Snooper President. This story comes at the worst possible time for him, struggling as he already is to drag his second term free of the scandals in which it has been mired. Not only that, this is the second government department in less than a month shown to have been wildly overzealous in taking phone records: the Justice Department was caught subpoenaing the same data from Associated Press journalists just a few weeks ago.

The leaked document obtained by the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, which is marked Top Secret, instructs the phone company to produce “all call detail records or 'telephony metadata'” for all communications operated by Verizon within the US, and from the US to other countries, and then continue to produce it, ongoing, for the three month duration of the order.

What is being collected isn't call content – this isn't a wire-tapping operation – but metadata; when a call is made, and to whom, and for how long. James Ball at the Guardian gives a good run-down of what this means here.

In essence what this scandal means is that the Obama-era NSA has simply continued Bush-era tactics. In an eerily similar scandal in 2005, a whistleblower revealed that the NSA had been intercepting telephone records wholesale from AT&T, another telecommunications giant, with the same sort of injunction; which implies that Verizon probably isn't the only network whose records are being obtained by the government – though it is the only network implicated in this particular leak.

Of course, the President usually doesn't personally sign off on these things. But that there have been so many violations on his watch hints troublingly of a White House culture that sets a low premium on privacy.

There is a defence to all this, of course. You and I do not work in the Oval Office. We do not know the dangers the US may face, and we do not know how many lives have been saved in exchange for this privacy. It is the NSA's job to keep people safe, and if it feels it can track terrorists by correlating certain patterns of phone behaviour, then perhaps there is an argument that they are right to do so. Perhaps it is worth it.

But citizens were not given any choice in the matter. This – like the AP subpoena – happened in secret, “Top Secret” in this case. Maybe privacy had to be overridden, and maybe it had to be in secret, for the greater good. But this presidency – this President – wasn't supposed to operate like this.

(It is not just the administration at fault here, it has to be said. MSNBC's Adam Serwer astutely pointed out that Congress has twice had the opportunity to vote on amendments that would at least partially to lift the lid on NSA secret surveillance, and twice voted against it.)

Further worrying questions are raised by this issue too, perhaps most haunting of which is: could the secret court order as used by the NSA to requisition data from Verizon – and simultaneously gag them – be used for, say, Facebook data? Or Google data? The NSA is an incredibly secretive organisation; the truth is, we don't know what they are able to do until, like yesterday, it leaks out.

I'll end with a quote from a crucial campaign speech Obama made in August 2007, entitled “The War We Need To Win.” In this speech, the ambitious upstart Senator set out his policy stall for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. With a directness that his oratory has lacked of late, Obama eviscerated the Bush administration's policies for riding roughshod over privacy protections in the name of national security.

This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

Obama, back in 2007, talking about Bush, concluded: “This Administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.”

In the six years since that speech was given, nothing seems to have changed.

The NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.