WASHINGTON — As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama visited a center for scholars in August 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”
More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think has once again gotten out of control. On Friday, he will give another speech, this time at the Justice Department defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties.
The journey between those two speeches reflects the transition from the backbench of the United States Senate to the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate skeptical of government power found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety.
A sobering story which reminds me of that scene from Oliver Stone's wonderful movie Nixon where Nixon visits the Lincoln Memorial at midnight. It's during the Vietnam war and protesters are sleeping on the memorial steps when he arrives (the whole thing is based on a real incident -- though I think in real life none of the protesters actually woke up).
That final exchange between Nixon and the young student could be repeated almost word for word today between Obama and a young student (knowing Oliver Stone it's designed to give you that feel no matter who is president), though I think it's an improvement to observe that today's "crime" -- spying -- is less egregious an offense than an illegal war in a time of compulsive military service.