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NY Times Details Obama's Changing Views on U.S. Spying

Image: NY Times Details Obama's Changing Views on U.S. Spying

By Melanie Batley   |   Thursday, 16 Jan 2014 10:39 AM

President Barack Obama was a vocal critic of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs during his earliest days in politics, but since becoming president he has largely defended the system and intelligence-gathering practices he inherited, according to The New York Times.

In an August 2007 speech on terrorism, then-Senator Obama described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in.

"That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime," he said.

And in a campaign speech in 2004, he said the Patriot Act, which enabled the massive expansion in the country's surveillance apparatus, was "violating our fundamental notions of privacy."

In a stark contrast, Obama is expected to defend government spying in a speech scheduled Friday, which is also designed to address public concern about civil liberties while discussing the appropriate extent of government power, the Times reported Wednesday.

Advisers insist that Obama has always supported robust surveillance as long as it is kept in check, but they acknowledged that the president's views on the matter have changed since he took office.

"When you get a package every morning, it puts steel in your spring," David Plouffe, the president's longtime adviser, told the Times. "There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom."

An alleged plot by Somali extremists to attack Obama's inauguration was also a wake-up call that may have contributed to the president's shift in views and caused him to acknowledge the need to detect threats before they materialize, according to the Times.

"The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way," Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism adviser who worked with the Obama team on the threat, told the newspaper.

The Times points out that while Obama instituted procedural changes to ensure the intelligence court kept surveillance programs in check, he effectively accepted George W. Bush's surveillance programs and never undertook any substantial changes or overhauls of his own, preferring maintain the status quo.

"He's sitting on the other end of the pen now," said one Obama aide, according to the Times. "He has more information than he did then. And he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration."

According to the Times, the president was privately outraged at the massive leak of secret NSA information by Edward Snowden and that it was made public, according to the Times.

But while he, like many Americans, ultimately became alarmed about the extent of the programs when it was discovered that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone was being tapped, he has nonetheless continued to believe in the importance of allowing security agencies the latitude to detect and fight risks.

"Whatever reforms he makes, you can be sure that if there's another incident — and the odds are there will be in our history — there'll be someone on CNN within seconds saying if the president hadn't hamstrung the intelligence community, this wouldn't have happened," former Obama political adviser David Axelrod told the Times.

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