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Bob Franken: Pauls and policy

He may have gone to Harvard Law and all that, but President Barack Obama’s grasp of lessons learned from history leaves a little bit to be desired. He was certainly off-base when he tried to justify the massive National Security Agency’s massive surveillance by citing the Revolutionary War group Sons of Liberty and member Paul Revere: “At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots.”

It’s not often I quote Sen. Rand Paul, but he did have a terrific response on CNN: “Paul Revere was warning us that the British were coming, not that the Americans were coming.” Great sound bite, but Paul (Rand) went on to point out that the Fourth Amendment was included in the Constitution because the British rulers had this nasty habit of using documents known as writs of assistance which allowed them to force their way into colonists’ home to rifle through belongings, without needing a warrant. They sound like today’s secret national-security letters permitted by the so-called Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand material from Americans, also without a warrant. Not only that, but authorities also can forbid the recipient from telling anyone. The president said nothing in his speech about putting a stop to it.

In fact, his address offered very little except lip service when it comes to reining in an intelligence establishment that has been shown to use today’s mind-boggling technology to scoop up every shred of our privacy. We wouldn’t have known about any of it had it not been for Edward Snowden, who had the audacity to expose all these intrusions. For that, Snowden has had to flee a country where a furious national-security establishment is waiting to severely punish him for blowing the whistle. Mr. Obama had little to say about him, other than to repeat the mantra that he revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”

As for the “reforms” the president did announce, most of them have loopholes big enough to fly a drone through. But his flimsy changes were really beside the point. The speech was an attempt to calm fears of a government running wild, its spies willy-nilly abusing the rights of its citizens. It is not unreasonable to worry that overexuberant U.S. intelligence agencies will use their supercomputers to delve into the personal lives of all of us. In fact, thanks to the Snowden disclosures, we know they already are doing just that. It is also not a stretch to worry that the pilotless aircraft police departments are clamoring to get inevitably will be used in ways that invade our space. Authorities contend that the extensive use of these modern tools is necessary to keep our society safe. It’s the same argument they made about torture, which presumably our interrogators are not using, although there’s little doubt that they still would be had their tactics not been exposed by media reports. Officials always fight a bitter battle to shut down any coverage of their questionable activities. This administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to punish leaks — up to and including snooping through journalists’ records.

Much has been made about how candidate Obama has morphed into a president with views that have really changed about national security tactics. To be as fair as can be, we should note that he gets to see dangers that we don’t. But that’s a big part of the problem: We’re kept in the dark. Even when someone is demonstrably abused and sues, government lawyers often succeed in getting the cases thrown out because they would disclose state secrets.

Clearly, there is a mortal threat from terrorists, but why should we have to worry about a threat from our own government?

Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at