Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Still Unprotected

President Obama’s reforms at the NSA won’t protect Americans’ privacy from continued government intrusion.

SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images
SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images
SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

When we learned the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the phone data of every American last June, it posed a serious constitutional question: Do we no longer have a Fourth Amendment?

On Friday, Jan. 17, President Barack Obama essentially responded, "No, we really don't."

The president is to be commended for trying to enact reforms at the NSA. At the very least, he recognized a problem and sought to address public concerns.

When we learned the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the phone data of every American last June, it posed a serious constitutional question: Do we no longer have a Fourth Amendment?

On Friday, Jan. 17, President Barack Obama essentially responded, "No, we really don’t."

The president is to be commended for trying to enact reforms at the NSA. At the very least, he recognized a problem and sought to address public concerns.

But nothing he said in his speech reverses or even significantly impedes the government from prying into the private lives of citizens as a general practice. Nothing fundamentally changes about how our privacy is still unprotected.

The Fourth Amendment was included in the Constitution precisely to prevent the issuing of general warrants, in which blanket authority is given to the government to spy on citizens at will. The American colonists had to endure general warrants used by the British, who went to door to door searching as they pleased.

The lesson of the American Revolution was that this should never happen again, and yet the NSA’s data collection program is the modern equivalent of this practice. President Obama cited Paul Revere in his speech, but Paul Revere rode through the streets to tell us the British were coming — not that the Americans are coming.

In misdiagnosing the problem, the president offers the wrong solutions. The primary question remains, "Can a single warrant be applied to millions of Americans records?" President Obama still says yes.

Even though President Obama assures us "the United States is not spying on ordinary people," this statement does not jibe with any of his suggested reforms. Plus, we’ve heard these types of assurances before. 

Obama saying that his new policy will only examine private information "two steps" removed from the target, as opposed to the current policy of three steps, is no comfort at all. The president might as well be saying we’re only going to abuse the Fourth Amendment twice, not three times.

Our current mass surveillance policies are either proper or improper. Unfortunately, even after the promise of minor tweaking, the president still considers them far too proper.

Attempts to seek permission for surveillance from designated offices of the NSA, independent contractors, or some special third party will not alleviate the problems in question. We have always separated police power from the judicial power. Warrants come from judges and are supposed to be focused on specific persons or tasks. I would not trust the NSA to police itself outside the bounds of the Constitution any more than I trust Congress to do the same.

An America in which the president of the United States essentially approves of the government collecting your phone records, your emails, your texts, your credit-card records, and other private information is not an America that those who founded it would recognize.

Today, the NSA provides a dragnet that picks up virtually everything we do, and President Obama simply attempting to poke a hole here or there does not change the unconstitutionality of this still widely cast net.

The president sees a different kind of America than what our Founding Fathers envisioned. I still think they got it right, and in my capacity as a United States senator will work diligently to restore and defend the Constitution that both the president and I swore to uphold.

Rand Paul is a U.S. Senator from Kentucky. 

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