NSA data-gathering deja vu for privacy hawks

With the revelations this week that the National Security Agency is gathering troves of data on Americans' telephone use, civil liberties advocates and privacy watchdogs are again on the warpath, accusing the administration of unconstitutionally invading Americans' privacy in a reckless pursuit of greater security.

The cries of "big brother" represent something of a deja vu moment for these advocates. For nearly eight years in the Bush administration, ever since the 2001 Patriot Act expanded government surveillance authority in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, privacy hawks and civil liberties groups warned about the perils of sacrificing precious liberty to purchase some added measure of security.

The difference this time around? It's a Democratic administration - and a Democratic president whom many of these groups count as an ally on other issues - on the receiving end of the ire.

The Huffington Post, in perhaps the most evocative attempt to link the surveillance policies of the Bush and Obama administration, headlined its website on Thursday with a composite image of Bush and Obama, their features eerily blended into the same face.

"George W. Obama," blared the none-too-subtle headline.

The New York Times editorial page chimed in as well, slamming a "president who once promised transparency and accountability" for betraying the values that led many to support him in the first place.

"The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue," the Times editorial board wrote. "Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers."

The NSA data-gathering revealed this week, the editorial board continued, "is the very sort of thing against which Mr. Obama once railed, when he said in 2007 that the surveillance policy of the George W. Bush administration 'puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.'"

Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed these concerns, saying the revelations "are a reminder that Congress has given the executive branch far too much power to invade individual privacy, that existing civil liberties safeguards are grossly inadequate, and that powers exercised entirely in secret, without public accountability of any kind, will certainly be abused."

Even one of the key authors of the Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., cried foul at the latest evidence of expanded surveillance.

"As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI's interpretation of this legislation," he said. "While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses... I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American."

But should these privacy advocates really be surprised, given Obama's previous attempts to strike a balance between privacy and security, rather than prioritize privacy above all else?