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 a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.