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Does Obama really believe NSA programs have the “right balance”?

In his remarks today defending the NSA programs gathering telephone records and mining Internet companies, Obama sounded a familiar refrain, saying he welcomes the “debate” over the proper balance between civil liberties and national security:

“You’ll remember when I made that speech a couple of weeks ago about the need for us to shift out of a perpetual war mindset, I specifically said that one of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved.
“I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.”

But later in the same remarks, Obama — who pointed out that the NSA programs have been authorized by Congress and are overseen by the FISA court — flatly said the NSA programs have “struck the right balance”:

“I know that the people who are involved in these programs, they operate like professionals.  And these things are very narrowly circumscribed.  They’re very focused.  And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amuck, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

If these programs have struck the right balance, then what is there to debate?

Look, in one sense this isn’t necessarily a contradiction. What Obama appears to mean is that he believes his administration has brought more oversight to these programs than the previous one did, and that the balance is now appropriate, but that a debate over that balance should happen, and that if we have one, we may end up agreeing Obama has it right.

That said, in his national security speech several weeks ago, Obama strongly suggested that this “balance” remains very much a work in progress. In that speech his focus was on drones and leak investigations. But in an overall sense, the whole speech was laced with uncertainty — he seemed to continually suggest not just that we still don’t have this balance right, but that we perhaps never will.

Lurking under uncertainty was a basic, but still poorly understood, fact about all of this. Right or wrong, Obama has been very forthright in defining his “commander in chief” role as one that, when push comes to shove, requires him to tilt in the direction of national security rather than towards civil liberties when he decides that it’s necessary. In the speech, Obama said “constitutional issues” must be “weighed” against “my responsibility to protect the American people,” leaving little doubt that ultimately he sees the latter as his paramount responsibility.

In his remarks today, Obama was even more explicit about this. He said:

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important  than any commitment I made: Number one, to keep the American people safe; and
number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.”

Note which one Obama listed first. Right or wrong, that’s how he’s defined the role. National security comes first. Everything else makes sense once you accept that basic fact. Now, you may see this as a false choice, which is fine; but Obama’s straight up declaration of his priorities is still key to understanding this whole debate.

The tone of Obama’s big speech very much suggested that he believes a key part of his legacy will rest on whether he restores the proper balance between civil liberties and national security, after a decade of imbalance set in motion by 9/11 and the massive buildup of the national security state that commenced in its wake. No one would question that Obama reversed some of his predecessor’s worst abuses and has made important strides in this direction. No one would dispute that Congress is heavily complicit in constraining Obama from making further progress in certain areas.

Still, I find it hard to imagine that these NSA programs represent a level of restored balance that Obama would proudly hold up as part of that legacy. But perhaps I’m wrong; after all, he told us today that those programs have the balance right.

More to the point, thanks to his own definition of his commander in chief role, which — as he himself forthrightly tells us — requires him to place national security first, perhaps a full restoration of the proper balance will never be a part of his legacy.