Obama Will Keep Spying Because That's What Presidents Do

On Friday, the president addressed concerns about NSA surveillance—and why he’s got no plans to shut it down.

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President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Early reviews are in, and the consensus seems pretty clear: President Barack Obama isn’t going to fundamentally alter the NSA’s spying regime. As the National Journal’s James Oliphant wrote following the president’s speech Friday, new reforms “will have little operational effect” on how the National Security Agency operates going forward.

And, if you ask me, he’s got no incentive to do it.

I don’t typically share the same perspective of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald—who helped NSA leaker Edward Snowden bring attention to the NSA’s metadata collection program—but he’s right that Obama’s address was, on one level, something of a “cosmetic” effort to reassure the public, and less about making major changes in how the government collects surveillance data.

Invoking the imagery of Paul Revere’s ride and recalling the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama made clear that he’s sensitive to criticism he’s absorbed about Snowden’s NSA revelations, noting, “it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us.” And he outlined a series of policy tweaks in an effort to address those concerns.

Chief among them was his call for the creation of a public advocate role to serve as a check against NSA lawyers when cases come before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts.

But if anyone had expected a major rollback of NSA metadata collection as a national security tool in the president’s toolbox, they’d be disappointed.

The Obama administration, via the NSA, is going to keep spying on you, me and everybody else.

It’s what presidents—Obama included—do. Here’s why:

If it’s a choice between ogre and patsy, Obama will take ogre.

As I wrote back in June, any American president—past, present or (foreseeable) future—would rather deal with complaints that they’re too aggressive on national security, rather than too weak. And that goes double when you’re Obama—a president, who, despite doubling down in Afghanistan and ramping up targeted killing with drones, is still heckled by opponents with charges of “dithering” and “appeasement” when it comes to protecting Americans from threats.

Obama’s reforms are incremental because he’s an incrementalist.

When the president set out to “radically” reform healthcare, he adopted Mitt Romney’s coverage plan. In response to the financial sector crisis, he signed Dodd-Frank. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal came with minimal fanfare and as part of a package deal after his second year in office.

It’s a go-slow approach that has agitated progressives at times, but at this point, there’s no reason that anyone should expect this to change.

Obama would rather let Congress deal with it. And they probably won’t.

And until there’s a specific case, involving an average American, whose privacy is violated in a way that outrages the public, civil libertarians will have a tough time getting traction on this issue.

Although 68 percent of Americans say the NSA intrudes on their privacy, only two percent say it’s one of the president’s major failures. And unlike Syria, where the public and members of Congress coalesced to thwart the president’s plan to intervene militarily, the consensus isn’t there yet for more vigorously curbing the NSA’s power—because legislators don’t want to be blamed retroactively for being lax if there’s a future terror attack.

Clearly, with Friday’s speech, Obama hasn’t answered all of the potential constitutional questions that are implicated by his administration’s continued reliance on the NSA’s metadata collection.

But he did explain—fairly thoroughly—his view of the competing interests of national security and individual liberty, outlining how far he was willing to go to make changes in policy, and the difference between the more abstract considerations—however valid—of a civil liberties debate, and the considerations of a president charged with upholding the Constitution and simultaneously overseeing the post-9/11 national security state.

He didn’t dwell on Snowden’s revelations, saying only that if anyone “can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.” And he acknowledged that finding the balance between privacy and security “is not simple,” but that ultimately, he views the NSA issue from the perspective of “a president who looks at intelligence every morning.”

His speech isn’t going be cheered by the civil libertarians—and it shouldn’t be—but it would probably be endorsed by any of his predecessors, and, I’d be willing to bet, his successor. 

David Swerdlick is an associate editor for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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