The dimensions of the programs are only beginning to emerge. But leaks of a secret surveillance court order and highly classified government slides indicate that the FBI and National Security Agency have assembled detailed call records on millions of Americans and tapped into the servers of technology companies that handle the bulk of the nation’s e-mail and online video traffic.
Until now, the effort has been shielded from the sort of public scrutiny that gradually accumulated around Obama’s drone campaign, mainly because the surveillance programs leave virtually no trace and are so highly classified that even critics in Congress have been unable to fully articulate their concerns.
This past week’s disclosures punctured that veil, adding new pressure on Obama to defend his administration’s counterterrorism policies and the secrecy surrounding them. It is a position that in some ways resembles the second-term posture of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
In his first public comments on the controversy, Obama emphasized the congressional and judicial oversight of the surveillance programs. He also stressed their effectiveness.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said Friday. But he said the value in disrupting terrorism outweighed any “modest encroachments on privacy. . . . You know, net, it was worth us doing.”
Beyond the familiar ring of that rationale, U.S. officials, civil liberties groups and security experts said the revelations show that, as much as Obama has sought to distance himself from the counterterrorism policies of his predecessor, he has embraced and in some cases expanded controversial programs that originated under Bush.
“If you think about the president’s speeches, there has been an attempt to articulate a discontinuity” from Bush on a range of issues, including prisoner interrogations and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, said Steven Aftergood, an expert on secrecy and surveillance at the Federation of American Scientists.
“But when it comes to surveillance,” Aftergood said, “there’s no clear repudiation. On the contrary, there appeared to be an embrace and an endorsement all the way through.”
Bush loyalists made similar points in ways that at times bordered on gloating.
“Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O is carrying out Bush’s 4th term,” former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a message on Twitter, referring to Obama.