Old Obama Vs. New Obama on Warrantless Wiretapping

When Barack Obama was running for the United States Senate in 2004, he said that he saw U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, as his legislative role model.

Obama told me five years ago that he wanted to emulate Feingold as a defender of civil liberties and the Constitution, especially when it came to matters of protecting the right to privacy that was so under assault during the Bush-Cheney interregnum.

After his election as the junior senator from Illinois, Obama did work with Feingold on a number of issues and joined the Wisconsin progressive in boldly and unequivocally asserting that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program was "illegal".

But now, Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, has asserted in a speech, and restated in a response to a reporter's question, that Bush-Cheney warrantless wiretapping program "wasn't illegal."

Feingold wants to know which side the president is on; that of Senator Obama, who said warrantless wiretapping was "illegal" or that of the Obama administration intelligence director who says it "wasn't illegal."

Here's Feingold's latest letter to the president:

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to reiterate my request for you to formally and promptly renounce the assertions of executive authority made by the Bush Administration with regard to warrantless wiretapping. As a United States Senator, you stated clearly and correctly that the warrantless wiretapping program was illegal. Your Attorney General expressed the same view, both as a private citizen and at his confirmation hearing.

It is my hope that you will formally confirm this position as president, which is why I sent you a letter on April 29, 2009, urging your administration to withdraw the unclassified and highly flawed January 19, 2006, Department of Justice Legal Authorities Supporting the Activities of the National Security Agency Described by the President ("NSA Legal Authorities White Paper"), as well as to withdraw and declassify any other memoranda providing legal justifications for the program. Particularly in light of two recent events, I am concerned that failure to take these steps may be construed by those who work for you as an indication that these justifications were and remain valid.

On June 8, Director of National Intelligence Blair asserted in a speech and in response to a question from a reporter that the warrantless wiretapping program "wasn't illegal." His office subsequently clarified that he did not intend to make a legal judgment and that he had meant to convey only that the program was authorized by the president and the Department of Justice. Nonetheless, Director Blair's remarks – which directly contravene your earlier position, as well as the position of Attorney General Holder – risk conveying to the Intelligence Community, whose job it is to explore legally available surveillance options, that not complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act may be such an option. Moreover, his "clarification" highlights the need to formally renounce the legal justification that the "White Paper" provides.

In addition, I asked your nominee to be General Counsel for the Director of National Intelligence, whether, based on the "White Paper" and other public sources, he believed that the warrantless wiretapping program was legal. His written response to my question, which was presumably vetted by your administration, indicated that, because the program was classified, he could not offer an opinion. Should he be confirmed, this position, too, risks conveying to the Intelligence Community that there may be classified justifications for not complying with FISA. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has seen all of the legal justifications, classified and unclassified, that were offered in defense of the warrantless wiretapping program, I strongly disagree with this implication.


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