SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – As a junior senator with presidential aspirations, Barack Obama built his persona in large part around opposition to Bush administration counterterrorism policies, and sponsored a bill in 2005 that would have sharply limited the government’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens.
That younger Obama bears little resemblance to the commander-in-chief who stood on a stage in San Jose on Friday, justifying broad programs targeting phone records and Internet activities as vital tools to prevent terrorist attacks and to protect innocent Americans.
Obama, a former constitutional law professor who rose to prominence in part by attacking what he called the government’s post-Sept. 11 encroachment on civil liberties, has undergone a philosophical evolution, arriving at what he now considers the right balance between national security prerogatives and personal privacy.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said Friday. “My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
As Obama strived to reassure the American people following startling revelations about top secret federal data-mining and surveillance programs, he said that he, too, has long been torn on the issue and that there is no easy answer. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” he said.
Obama and his advisers and allies argue that the compromises he has made have helped safeguard the United States from a large-scale strike such as the one al-Qaida pulled off in 2011.
“When you’re president of the United States, you begin every day with these briefings,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime political consigliere and former White House adviser. “I know that he lives every day with the reality that there are threats out there. That has to be an animating principle for any person. It is a natural thing to want to do everything that you can within the appropriate parameters to thwart those threats.”
But Obama’s approach has disappointed many of his political supporters and is also serving as a rallying cry for conservative libertarians and tea party leaders who find themselves in sync with many liberals on the surveillance issue.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican considered a possible candidate to succeed Obama in 2016, called the surveillance programs “an astounding assault on the constitution.”
For critics on both sides, the issue highlights the enduring power of the national security apparatus that President George W. Bush put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, who hired Obama to teach at the college and advised his 2008 campaign, said some might have engaged in “wishful thinking” by assuming Obama was more liberal on the issue of personal privacy than he really is.
“He’s not a passionate civil libertarian; he’s a rational civil libertarian,” Stone said. “He’s cold and reasoned and fact-based. He’s not likely to go off the tracks in either direction.”
In private meetings at the White House, Obama is more pragmatic than ideological on national security issues, advisers say.
“What he wrestles with is when fighting an enemy like al-Qaida, a terrorist group that operates in very nimble ways, how do we make sure we have authorities to target them and disrupt their activities without going overboard?” said Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who helped Obama prepare Friday’s speech, as well as a major national security address last month at the National Defense University.
In that address, Obama declared that the United States had reached a “crossroads” in its fight against terrorism as the post-9/11 wars come to an end. He defended the U.S. drone program he expanded as effective, acknowledging that it kills civilians and outlining narrower guidelines for launching strikes.
Rhodes rejected a comparison between Obama and Bush as “overstated,” noting that the president has dismantled key pieces of the Bush administration’s national security legacy — from ending the war in Iraq to prohibiting torture and pushing, unsuccessfully so far, to close the military’s detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“At the same time, we’re not simply going to shut down every counterterrorism tool that we have. We’re going to use the ones that are effective and in line with the rule of law,” Rhodes said.
That is the defense Obama articulated Friday when he decided to take a question from a reporter. In a long, meandering answer — which he appeared to deliver without notes — Obama talked about his personal views and said he welcomed a national debate on the government’s counterterrorism activities.
“I think it’s healthy for our democracy,” Obama said.
But several scholars — including Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, who mentored Obama as a student — criticized him for keeping the surveillance programs so secret that the public can’t assess them.
“I recognize the need to keep details confidential if the government’s antiterrorism efforts are to succeed, but keeping details confidential isn’t the same thing as keeping so much of the thought process in the dark that a meaningful public discussion becomes essentially impossible,” Tribe said. “What has disappointed me is the absence of that discussion, which I am convinced that the president’s basic commitments to transparency ought to support.”