The revelation that the federal government has spied on millions of supposedly private phone and Internet communications makes President Barack Obama's headache over the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax exemptions seem like a passing migraine.
The leaks about the policy to the British newspaper the Guardian and to the Washington Post, provided in convincing detail, cast a president who claims to be a champion of individual privacy and a free press as just another hypocritical politician bending to intelligence-gathering mission creep.
Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer has suggested, according to Politico, that Mr. Obama "is carrying out Bush's fourth term" by continuing into his fifth year in the Oval Office the private communications dragnet first authorized by Mr. Bush seven years ago.
Obama's Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has justified the sweeping federal quest into the digital records of Verizon and other carriers as "important and completely legal." He says the search is in accord with the Patriot Act as extended by Mr. Obama and with the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, whose special court is charged with reviewing and authorizing the actions.
Mr. Clapper is supported on his claim of legality by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and by its vice chairman, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Senator Feinstein has said that only transmission data, known as "metadata," and not the content of the communications, have been collected. She added that "terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence." Senator Chambliss said the searches have been going on for seven years with Congress informed, and that as far as he knows no citizen "has registered a complaint."
The New York Times in an uncommonly long and blistering editorial called Ms. Feinstein's defense "absurd," and argued that Mr. Chambliss' comment raised the obvious question of how such a citizen would know about the massive federal scrutiny. The original sponsor of the Patriot Act, Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, said "seizing the phone records of innocent people is excessive and un-American."
Prior to this latest political bombshell, President Obama had his hands full with what has been called a trifecta of scandals in his administration's handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack and the Justice Department's snooping on Associated Press reporters, as well as the IRS fiasco.
Now there no doubt will be a hue and cry over who leaked this latest revelation of governmental snooping, originally reported in the Guardian by Glenn Greenwald, a prominent liberal commentator on civil rights and other officialdom abuses. The last thing Mr. Obama needs right now is to be described as an enabler of a continued policy of the junior George Bush, who has been his favorite whipping boy for leaving him with two wars and a crippled economy.
The issue that President Obama must deal with now is not so much defending the proffered purpose of the broad communications dragnet as answering why it was held in such secrecy for so long if it was both legal and justifiable, and not shared with the American public on those grounds.
As the Times editorial noted, Mr. Obama as a senator from Illinois observed in 2007 that President Bush's terrorist surveillance was one that "puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide." The very same contradiction has been raised in Mr. Obama's continued use and extension of armed drone aircraft against targets in the Middle East, heightening the vexing issue of collateral damage.
Once more, Mr. Obama's hopes of pivoting in his second term from issues inherited from the previous administration to a domestic agenda of his own in keeping with his generally liberal philosophy are being thwarted, this time in part by his own hand.
An old axiom in politics still applies, that swift disclosure of problematic policies is the best antidote to public outrage against an unpopular or damaging revelation. The president needs, openly and effectively, to defend keeping the Bush surveillance in place, or if possible revise it in a way to make it more compatible with, as he once said, the liberties we cherish.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.