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Obama's Orwellian Legacy

Obama's Orwellian Legacy

By Dustin Walker - June 11, 2013

Is America moving toward the Big Brother dystopia envisioned by George Orwell in some of his most famous novels?

That question has been on many minds in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance of phone records and Internet data. The ACLU, for one, called these programs “beyond Orwellian” in a statement released last week. The ACLU’s response is characteristically feverish, but in at least one respect, the organization is right: We are indeed approaching an Orwellian world.

Given the safeguards in place against abuse, the surveillance programs are not the problem. Although Americans are right to jealously guard their liberty and to display a healthy degree of suspicion about government programs of this scale, suspicion should not obscure two truths. First, the evidence released thus far suggests that the programs are necessary and effective in disrupting, dismantling, and defeating terrorist networks that so often rely upon phone and Internet communications. Second, the Constitution’s checks and balances are at work in the oversight of these programs.

The phone monitoring component does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s calls without a court order. PRISM -- the program that collects emails, videos, and other data from major Internet companies -- is limited to foreign targets and does not include U.S. citizens. These programs have been supervised by all three branches of government; Congress has approved them and is regularly briefed, and federal judges continue to scrutinize requests for targeting of specific terror suspects.

But the fact that these operations are operating under the rule of law is not the end of the story. For if we are not approaching the totalitarian nightmare of a novel like “1984,” the revelations provide a stunning example of how President Obama has come to resemble a character in Orwell’s other dystopian parable, “Animal Farm.”

That 1945 novella tells of a farm revolution led by pigs, who drive out their oppressive human master, only to move into his house, don his clothes, and wield his brutal whip to subjugate the other animals. At the story’s conclusion, the pigs’ victims gaze in on their new masters drinking and playing cards with half a dozen farmers. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

To anyone comparing the conduct of Barack Obama with that of George W. Bush, the sense of confusion should feel familiar. America’s 44th president ran against almost all of Bush’s national security policies. But once power was in his hands, he began to embrace them as avidly as the pigs wielded their whips.

Senator Obama had voted against renewal of the Patriot Act in 2005 because he said it allowed the government “to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document -- through library books they've read and phone calls they've made.” But in 2011, President Obama signed the renewal of the same law and defended its roving wiretaps and searches of business records as vital to America’s counterterrorism efforts.

Presidential candidate Obama ran against the very ethos of Bush’s national security program, saying it put forward “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.” But just last week in California, President Obama told Americans they “have to make some choices as a society” because “you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”

The real effect of the NSA stories is to cement a narrative about Obama that will likely become part of his legacy: the liberal senator and constitutional law professor who, like the pigs in “Animal Farm,” metamorphosed into what he had so notoriously opposed. Guantanamo remains open. Drones still rain down on Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere else the president sees fit. Leaks are prosecuted vigorously and reporters are investigated to uncover their sources. And now, the president is affirming the surveillance practices he once mused could be unconstitutional. In light of these actions alone, it seems that Barack Obama has learned that George W. Bush got a lot of things right.

The point of noting the president’s porcine transformation is not to criticize his current policies, but rather to serve as an instructive example for future White House aspirants: The responsibilities of power are difficult to reconcile with lazy criticism that is so easy to dispense from the sidelines. As long as he fails to recognize the debt that he, and the nation, owe to his predecessor, he will be practicing a vice that Orwell was a master of depicting: hypocrisy. 

Dustin Walker is the editor of RealClearDefense.

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