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Just Salute and Follow Orders': When Secrecy and Surveillance Trump the Rule of Law

We should be skeptical when Obama claims he will rein in the NSA collection of data from American's private communications.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department where U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech on reforming the NSA January 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to announce reforms including a requirement by intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before utilizing access to telephonic data gathered on U.S. citizens. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Question: How can you tell when a politician is lying?

Answer: When he’s moving his lips.

If that didn’t generate a chuckle, how about:

Q: Why is honesty in politics like oxygen?

A: The higher you go, the scarcer it gets.

Then there’s President Obama’s gaffe on the Tonight Show: “We don’t have a domestic spying program,” which is downright laughable in light of this past year’s revelations about domestic spying by the National Security Agency.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., January 17, 2014. (AFP/Jim Watson) U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., January 17, 2014. (AFP/Jim Watson) 

But if that still doesn’t push you over the edge into near hysterics, here’s one guaranteed to get the biggest laugh of all, at least from those clear-sighted enough to grasp the irony of a politician talking about “trust”:

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law,” declared President Obama in June 2013, in response to questions about the government’s domestic spying program, “then we’re going to have some problems here.”

What’s not at all amusing, of course, is the fact that our nation is riddled with all manner of problems, and it’s because we have government officials in the executive branch, Congress, and the courts incapable of abiding by the Constitution. These people have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted to do what they say, and they certainly can’t be trusted to abide by their oaths of office to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Indeed, the American people have been cheated and lied to for so long that we’ve arrived at a stage of disbelief and skepticism. So when the Obama administration announces that it will be rolling out proposals to rein in the NSA bulk collection of data about Americans’ private communications, you’d be perfectly justified in wondering what other far-fetched schemes they plan to sell you next.

Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock 

Minus a few bells and whistles, Obama’s new NSA scheme is no different from the old scheme (apart from the fact that it’s worse): In a nutshell, the NSA will stop storing the data generated by American phone calls and will, instead, have the phone companies collect and store it in their own databases.

Here’s where we’re just being subjected to more of the same scam: While the Obama administration works its sleight of hand trick over the bulk collection of telephony metadata, specifically related to land line calls, the NSA is collecting some five billion records on cell phone location data every single day. The NSA also has a program of surveillance by which they penetrate digital devices not connected to the Internet by means of radio waves. And then there’s XKeyscore, a surveillance program which “intercepts 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communications each day.” These programs will continue unabated.

Also unfazed by Obama’s proposals regarding domestic phone calls are the NSA’s many nasty and nefarious methods of carrying out surveillance, including a program dubbed TURBINE, which, when it infects a computer, can record conversations with the computer’s microphone, snap photos with the webcam, record Internet browsing history, record login/password information, log keystrokes, and take data off of flash drives plugged into the computer.

Here’s where Obama’s new scheme would make things even worse: Under this new program, not only would government agents gain access to whatever data they please, but they would also receive real-time updates once a target number has been selected. Moreover, by requiring phone companies to standardize their data, the government will be able to gain even greater access to Americans’ cell phone calls.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department where U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech on reforming the NSA January 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to announce reforms including a requirement by intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before utilizing access to telephonic data gathered on U.S. citizens. Win McNamee/Getty Images Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department where U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech on reforming the NSA January 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to announce reforms including a requirement by intelligence agencies to obtain permission from a secret court before utilizing access to telephonic data gathered on U.S. citizens. Win McNamee/Getty Images 

Unfortunately, with so much of the public attention focused on the NSA’s misdeeds, there is a tendency to forget that the NSA is merely one of a growing number of clandestine intelligence agencies tasked with spying on the American people. Indeed, the CIA, FBI, DHS, and DEA among others, routinely step outside the bounds of the law in order to spy on the citizenry and will continue to do so. Indeed, as I point out in my book, "A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State," the CIA, FBI, DHS, and DEA among others, routinely step outside the bounds of the law in order to spy on the citizenry and will continue to do so.

This is what is referred to as violating not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, as well.

By law, I am referring to the only law that truly matters—the U.S. Constitution—the only law that truly safeguards us against government abuse, overreach, expansion and secrecy, which for these very reasons continues to be trampled upon, shoved aside, disregarded, whittled down, choked to death, and generally castrated by the President, Congress, state governments, and the courts, who without fail march in lockstep to the bidding of the military and security industrial complexes, law enforcement officials, corporations and the like.

As journalist Bill Moyers, who served as White House Press Secretary during the Johnson administration, recognized in his 1987 expose book on the inner workings of the secret government:

[T]he powers claimed by presidents in national security have become the controlling wheel of government, driving everything else. Secrecy then makes it possible for the president to pose as the sole competent judge of what will best protect our security. Secrecy permits the White House to control what others know. How many times have we heard a president say, “If you only knew what I know, you would understand why I’m doing what I’m doing.” But it’s a self-defeating situation. As Lord Acton said, “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice.” So in the bunker of the White House, the men who serve the president put loyalty above analysis. Judgment yields to obedience. Just salute and follow orders.

Constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of "A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State." Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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