The balancing act of national surveillance
In the early hours of Saturday, President Donald Trump tweeted a set of accusations directed at former President Barack Obama.
The tweets, claiming that Obama tapped his phones just before the election, have garnered incredible reactions from each side of the aisle. Trump’s retorts came two days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Trump administration and the current investigation of Russia’s ties with it.
Moreover, President Trump’s allegations compare what he believes Obama to have done to the likes of Richard Nixon and the notorious Watergate scandal. Watergate serves as an obvious example of the unethical means of surveillance. Although every country needs, to an extent, some surveillance to protect its people, these accusations pose the question of where can we find that balance.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was put into place after Watergate to prevent the use of power to spy on people, but still uphold some type of justified surveillance. In addition, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – or the FISA Court – is a group of justices who determine whether or not to grant permission and warrants to the government to monitor certain people.
Post-9/11 the Bush administration, under the Protect America Act, allowed for warrantless wiretapping without permission from the FISA Court. Emotions were high and there was a surge to answer how we can further protect our country.
Also under Bush, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and PRISM were established. The Patriot Act allowed phone tapping, and access to personal records and metadata if users were suspected of terrorism, while PRISM allowed access to Americans’ internet data.
The American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups and Obama when he ran for office in 2008, all spoke out against the possible monitoring of innocent people in an effort to protect Americans’ privacy.
Obama, an opponent of Bush’s tactics, told people in 2007 that the FISA Court could still work. Yet in 2008, Obama voted for a bipartisan bill updating the FISA rule that allowed telecommunications companies legal immunity in wiretapping cases.
During his time in office, Obama always advocated for more privacy, and even protection for whistleblowers whenever NSA surveillance went too far. Once Edward Snowden disclosed several NSA surveillance programs monitoring Americans in 2013, it proved that we still had not struck a balance, even if Obama claims his administration was reviewing NSA practices.
In response to Trump’s Twitter rant, Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for Obama, tweeted back. He claimed that anyone in the Obama administration knew how unlawful it was to involve themselves in a Department of Justice investigation.
This does not necessarily mean there wasn’t an instance of wiretapping, but that Obama nor the White House ordered it. According to an analysis from The Washington Post about Trump’s claims, Joel B. Pollack’s Breitbartarticle, “Mark Levin to Congress: Investigate Obama’s ‘Silent Coup’ vs. Trump,” is believed to have enticed the president’s accusations on the next day.
Pollack said the Obama administration filed a request with FISA to investigate people within Trump’s organization and Russian banks. He also cited a report from conservative website Heat Street to support this information.
However, The Guardian provided proof of the FBI filing a request in June, but not the October one that Breitbart claims had happened. The Washington Post as well as the New York Times have both been unsuccessful to confirm this FISA warrant to tap Trump’s phones.
Interestingly enough, no articles claim that anyone but the FBI filed these requests, and there’s not a single mention of involvement from Obama. So in order for Trump’s accusations to hold weight, he has to be willing to suggest a balance of surveillance like his predecessor aspired for.