Fox Muddles Surveillance Debate With Fabricated Hypocrisy Claim

Fox News is misrepresenting President Obama's position on surveillance and the threat of international terrorism to falsely accuse him of hypocrisy and fecklessness.

According to reports, the National Security Administration continues to collect metadata, including phone numbers and the duration of phone calls, from telephone providers, and works with Internet companies to mine data on user activity. The continuation of these programs, which were in place before President Obama took office, raises significant questions about the scope of surveillance powers established under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But rather than focus on legitimate questions, Fox's guests are misstating Obama's past positions in order to accuse him both of hypocrisy and of downplaying the continued threat of international terrorism. During an appearance on the June 7 edition of America's Newsroom, Rudy Giuliani offered this take:

The other problem you have here, Bill, this is, Obama is -- this is totally hypocritical for Obama. If Bush was doing this, if Mitt Romney following George Bush was doing this, it would be one thing. 

Obama ran against all of this. He also ended war on terror couple weeks ago last time I checked. War on terror is over. So the war on terror is over. Right? If we don't have much of a threat anymore  and we are going to up our surveillance of American citizens the incompetence of this administration is really impossible to catalog and describe.

Jamie Weinstein of the Daily Caller echoed Giuliani on Fox later that day, saying that the existence of surveillance programs “contradicts what [Obama] said on the campaign trail,” adding, “and recently he said Al Qaeda is receding.”  

The reality is that Obama's position on surveillance is in line with the position he took during the 2008 general election. At the time, Obama cast a controversial vote in favor of a bill expanding the 1978 FISA law. Then-Sen. Obama explained his decision to do so by explicitly citing the need to continue surveillance programs:

In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.


The ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counter-terrorism tool, and I'm persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe -- particularly since certain electronic surveillance orders will begin to expire later this summer. Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise.

Obama faced criticism from civil liberties groups and progressive organizations for backing the bill, which The New York Times reported was “a major expansion of the government's surveillance powers.” That vote was a shift from the position he took during the primary that year, as Obama had said he opposed controversial policies that the bill enshrined into law. In 2012, when Congress reauthorized the FISA Amendments, Obama announced that he "strongly supports" the bill that reauthorized the government's surveillance powers, which at the time were expiring. Obama also signed a 2011 extension of the Patriot Act, calling the law “an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat.”

Giuliani and Weinstein are also misstating Obama's position on the current threat of terrorism. Giuliani's claim that Obama “ended the war on terror” and said “we don't have much of a threat anymore” is an apparent reference to Obama's May speech on counter-terror strategies. In that speech, Obama very clearly said that while the nation is “safer” than it was a decade ago, the threat of international terrorism remains:

Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.  From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.  But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.  With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions -- about the nature of today's threats and how we should confront them.

There are legitimate questions about striking the proper balance between counter-terrorism and civil liberties that are raised with greater understanding of the scope of the government's data mining programs. But those questions are not answered by Fox pundits hijacking the conversation in its role as the voice of the opposition.