"Our intelligence professionals must be able to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they're planning," said the president. "The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor these communications."
He added that he would cancel his planned trip to Africa unless assured Congress would support the counterterrorism surveillance program.
The president was not Barack Obama. It was George W. Bush, in 2008, pressing Congress to extend and update reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). He was speaking directly to the American public, in an address broadcast live from the Oval Office.
How times have changed.
Back then, the President of the United States willingly led the fight for the programs he thought necessary to keep the nation safe. Now, our president sends underlings to make the case.
In distancing himself from the debate over PRISM (the foreign intelligence surveillance program made famous by the world-travelling leaker Edward Snowden), President Obama followed the precedent he established in May at the National Defense University.
There, he spoke disdainfully of drone strikes, the authorization to use military force against terrorists, and the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. All three are essential components of his counterterrorism strategy.
In distancing himself from his own strategy, Obama hoped to leave the impression that he is somehow above it all. He has dealt with the Snowden case the same way. When asked while traveling in Africa if he would take a role in going after the leaker, the president replied "I shouldn't have to."
The White House's above-it-all attitude sends seriously mixed messages to the American people, who are trying to figure if the government's surveillance programs are legal and appropriate.
Congress has not been much better.
The authority for PRISM is in FISA Section 702. Congress debated these authorities in 2007 and again when the program was reauthorized in 2008.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., surely remembers the controversy. He wrote President Bush: "There is no crisis that should lead you to cancel your trip to Africa. But whether or not you cancel your trip, Democrats stand ready to negotiate a final bill, and we remain willing to extend existing law for as short a time or as long a time as is needed to complete work on such a bill." Evidently, Reid must have felt the authorities granted under Section 702 received a full and sufficient hearing.
Most current members of Congress were seated under the dome during the 2008 debates. They had every opportunity not just to read the law, but to be briefed on the program by intelligence officials before voting on the bill. For them to act shocked at the scope of the program today rings about as hollow as Obama's expressed disdain for the operations he oversees.
The reality is that Congress and the administration share responsibility for these programs. If they want to change or modify them, who's stopping them?
If changes are made, however, they should to be made for the right reason. Leaders must never compromise our security for political expediency.
At least 60 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been aimed at the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. The overwhelming majority have been thwarted thanks to timely, operational intelligence about the threats. Congress should not go back to a pre-/11 set of rules just to appeal to populist sentiment.
Congress and the White House have an obligation to protect our liberties and to safeguard our security -- in equal measure. Meeting that mission is more important than winning popularity polls.
- James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Examiner