Foreign Policy and Privacy Continue to Get Little Attention from Obama, Congress

With precisely two years remaining in his tenure, President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union address that mainly focused on domestic affairs from free community college education to touting the health care law. When the president did delve into national security, foreign policy, and privacy, he left more questions than answers.

Elected partly as a repudiation of his predecessor, Obama referred to his duty not to make “rash decisions” that led the country to “risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts.” Instead, he said, as commander-in-chief, he seeks “a smarter kind of American leadership” — all subtle jabs at the presidency of George W. Bush.

Yet the president moved from denunciation of past wars to supporting future intervention in the Middle East, including acting unilaterally. Obama said, “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

However, Obama sent a conflicting message in trying to defeat the Islamic State by announcing, “We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort.” It has been reported for months that the main so-called moderate opposition in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, has been co-opted by radical elements that have rendered it futile against the armed forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

The president also had few words to give on the issue of privacy:

“Our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” – President Barack Obama, 2015 State of the Union

This was followed by a promise to “issue a report on how” these agencies are going “to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.” Other promises of reports on transparency have been made by the Obama administration, the most vigorous prosecutor of government whistleblowers, but the president has not done a very good job at ensuring these promises are kept.

Polls throughout 2013 and 2014 consistently found that Americans disapprove of the NSA's invasions of privacy.
Carl Wicklander, IVN contributor
The official Republican response was provided by newly-elected U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. Ernst relied mainly on talking points, and in her own words, was not delivering an actual response to the president’s speech.

Referring to the threats of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, Ernst mentioned that such threats “can’t just be wished away.” However, she only said that “we need a comprehensive plan to defeat them,” but offered no details, only a promise of a debate from her committee.

In a separate speech released directly on YouTube, Sen. Rand Paul more directly rebutted the president as he criticized the reflexive urge to intervene and called the 2011 war in Libya “a prime example of acting without thinking.” The Kentucky senator also pointed to the lack of trust people have in Washington.

“[W]hen the intelligence director [James Clapper] is not punished for lying to Congress, how are we to truth them?” He said.

In response to the administration’s policies on privacy, Paul said:

The president created this vast dragnet by executive order without congressional authority. He should immediately end this invasion of our privacy.”

Polls throughout 2013 and 2014 consistently found that Americans disapprove of the NSA’s invasions of privacy and do not trust the president to adequately address these concerns. This attitude may have been further validated when the 113th Congress concluded with the so-called “cromnibus bill,” which excluded legislation that overwhelmingly passed the House, including the Secure Data Act, which sought to end “backdoor” surveillance of personal data.

Instead, Congress passed a bill that featured what U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called “the most egregious sections of law” he has encountered during his time in Congress. The “Intelligence Authorization Act for 2015,” an appropriations bill to fund federal intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA, was amended in the U.S. Senate to include a section that gives these agencies virtually unrestricted access to the personal data of Americans.

The new version of the bill passed the upper chamber with a voice-vote (the bill passed with no recorded vote) and was overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. House, even though very few lawmakers actually bothered to read the changes made to it.

As Americans have expressed support for reforming surveillance practices, on the night of the State of the Union address, the official presentations from the major parties chose to say very little of substance on foreign policy and privacy.

Photo Source: AP