The former constitutional law professor — who rose to prominence in part by attacking what he called the government’s post-Sept. 11 encroachment on civil liberties — has undergone a philosophical evolution, arriving at what he now considers the right balance between national security prerogatives and personal privacy.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said in San Jose on Friday. “My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
“On net,” the president added, “it was worth us doing.”
As Obama strived to reassure the American people following startling revelations this week about top-secret federal data-mining and surveillance programs, he said that he, too, has long been torn on the issue and that there is no easy answer.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Obama and his advisers and allies argue that the compromises he has made have helped safeguard the United States from a large-scale strike like the one that al-Qaeda pulled off nearly a dozen years ago.
“When you’re president of the United States, you begin every day with these briefings,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime political consigliere and former White House adviser.
“I know that he lives every day with the reality that there are threats out there. That has to be an animating principle for any person,” Axelrod added. “It is a natural thing to want to do everything that you can within the appropriate parameters to thwart those threats.”
But Obama’s approach has disappointed many of his political supporters and is also serving as a rallying cry for conservative libertarians and tea party leaders, who find themselves in sync with many liberals on the surveillance issue.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), considered a possible candidate to succeed Obama in 2016, called the surveillance programs “an astounding assault on the Constitution.”
For critics on both sides, the issue highlights the enduring power of the national security apparatus that President George W. Bush put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, who hired Obama to teach there and advised his 2008 campaign, said some might have engaged in “wishful thinking” by assuming Obama was more liberal on the issue of personal privacy than he really is.