You're probably unaware that, early this week, President Obama quietly broke a major promise. Thanks to the media's 24/7 obsession with the fiscal cliff, the news of his betrayal was largely relegated to the CNN crawl at the bottom of the TV screen. Basically, he signed a spy law and morphed into George W. Bush.

 

On Sunday, Obama inked a five-year extension of the hyper-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows government spooks to conduct warrantless electronic eavesdropping operations inside the United States. Any American who communicates via phone or email with a foreign citizen can be targeted; the National Security Agency can snoop at will, without getting a warrant. Such were the lenient FISA rules passed by Congress in 2008, rules that retroactively legalized the Bush administration's post-9/11 warrantless eavesdropping activities. Back then, the Bush policy (conducted in cahoots with the telecommunication companies) was fiercely denounced by civil libertarians and liberals as an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizures.

Senator Obama, a nascent presidential candidate, was vocal in his criticism of the Bush policy. In 2007, he specifically promised to "support a filibuster of any bill" that shielded the telecommunication companies from citizen lawsuits alleging invasions of privacy. But in June 2008, he flip-flopped and announced his support for the sweeping bill.

He then floated two new promises. He said he would "work in the Senate to remove the (legal immunity) provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses." But whatever work he did came to naught; the telecommunication companies remained immunized, and he voted for the bill. Secondly, and more importantly, he coupled his Yes vote with this promise:

The FISA bill "does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power...I (support the bill) with the firm intention - once I'm sworn in as president - to have my attorney general conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future."

His campaign team also promised that, as president, he would work with Congress "to provide greater oversight and accountability" of the warrantless eavesdropping program.

But Obama's promises were empty. The domestic spying regime remains swaddled in secrecy; Obama has left it that way. And when the lenient FISA rules were set to expire at year's end, Obama insisted that Congress extend them for five years. Indeed, last week, when a handful of senators insisted that the government should tell us how many Americans are being scrutinized - thus fufilling Obama's promise of "greater oversight and accountability" - the White House said no. In Bush mode, Obama wanted no scrutiny, no curbs on his warrantless eavesdropping powers. The senators were asked to OK an extension of the spy program, no questions asked

But a few senators did ask questions. In floor debate, they complained that the rules (such as they are) allow the NSA to electronically spy on any American who communicates with a foreigner. As a result, unknown volumes of American emails and phone calls are being swept into the net. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, in particular, said he feared that a large number of Americans have fallen prey to his "backdoor search loophole."

Wyden has tried to find out whether the rules are being abused. Earlier this year, in a letter to a top national security bureaucrat, he sought information on "how many people inside the United States have had their communications collected or reviewed." He was subsequently told that the answer was classified. According to the reply letter, the release of that information "would likely impede the NSA's mission."

Wyden tried to amend the FISA extension bill, arguing that the ogvernment should be compelled to tell us how many Americans are being spied upon, and the nature of the spying. His effort failed. Likewise, Democratic colleague Jeff Merkley failed with an amendment that would've peeled back the curtain on a secret court annually certifies the NSA operation. Merkley contended that "an open and democratic society should not be governed by secret laws," but, again, the Obama administration said that it opposed all amendments. And last Friday, the five-year extension was approved - with overwhelming support from Senate Republicans. (The Republican House passed the extension last fall.)

It's noteworthy - but hardly surprising - that most Obama fans have been willfully mute about the president's broken '08 promise, and about his decision to morph into Bush on the domestic spy front. At minimum, those who routinely accused Bush of shredding the Constitution in the name of national security should be just as vigilant about his successor. Questions need to asked, regardless of who is president. Civil liberties and the right of privacy are enduring principles that supersede partisanship.

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Yesterday's top quote, courtesy of Republican congressman Robert Dold, who won office in the 2010 tea party wave:

"While I do believe that the federal government should play as little a role as possible in the lives of Americans, they do need to play a role. They need to be able to provide those things that Americans cannot provide for themselves, whether that be infrastructure, whether that be a common defense, justice....People are fed up with the idea of this partisanship. And I fear that we're going further partisan; that we're anchoring to the extremes as opposed to coming to the center."

Gee, ya think?

It's always entertaining - and all too rare - to see a Republican get religion about reality. Dold spoke on the floor, lamenting the House GOP's disgraceful refusal to pass the Hurricane Sandy relief bill on Tuesday night. We all know the reason for this refusal. We all know why the bill was dumped into the new Congress (which means that full relief will take many more weeks). It's very simple:

On election day, Mitt Romney and congressional Republican candidates were virtually wiped out in the northeast. Therefore, according to extremist/partisan calculus, the people in the northeast who were wiped out by Sandy do not deserve the same speedy relief that was given to the victims of Ike and Katrina.

This is the mentality that still reigns in the Republican House. Welcome to the next two years.

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