The news that the National Security Agency is collecting phone records on millions of Americans — along with new revelations that it is also mining data from Internet firms — exposes a basic, glaring contradiction at the heart of Obama’s prosecution of the war on terror.
On the one hand, Obama has vowed to turn the historical page on the era launched by the September 11th attacks — one that saw a dramatic expansion of the national security state grounded in the professed need to fight an international, open-ended war on terror that resulted in abuses such as torture, indefinite detention, and a drone program shrouded in secrecy. In his recent national security speech, Obama himself articulated a need to bring this era to a close, remarking that in American history, “every war has come to an end.”
On the other hand, the new revelations reveal — as Obama also made clear in that very speech — that he is not prepared to take concrete steps in important areas to end that war or to restore the more rational balance between civil liberties and security that he implicitly admitted has not yet been attained.
The administration is defending the NSA data-mining program by arguing that it does not entail any listening in on calls, even as the government is barred from indiscriminate sifting through the metadata, and sifting is only allowed when there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the “basis for the query is associated with a terrorist organization.” But that doesn’t explain the need for the program — and its legal rationale — to remain shrouded in secrecy. Key questions remain about the extraordinary scope and reach of it, and the degree to which it violates the basic privacy rights of American citizens. Administration officials — and members of Congress — have defended all of this as necessary to continue to defend the nation from terrorism. Whether or not that’s true, the very act of resorting to this defense confirms that the administration is not ready to end this “war” in practice.
Obama aides openly concede that this contradiction has not been resolved, though they couch this acknowledgment by claiming that they are moving towards resolving it. As Peter Baker puts it in his analysis this morning:
Aides said Mr. Obama’s approach is necessarily subtle, neither excessively hawkish nor overly restrained. The president believes in sustaining some post-Sept. 11 abilities to fight Al Qaeda, aides said, but has made a point of imposing stronger oversight and checks and balances that were not present immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of narrowing our focus and constraining our actions,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “It’s only natural, and healthy, that as the nation considers the current scale of the threat of terrorism, we will also consider whether the balance between security and privacy is appropriate.”
It needs to be said that Congress is heavily complicit — eagerly so, in fact — in preventing the country from moving in the direction of restoring a more rational balance between securities and civil liberties. It reauthorized the Patriot Act and the FISA provisions that make these tactics possible, and it has completely abdicated its responsibility to approach governing problems with any measure of seriousness — instead adopting the role of collective demagogue — when it comes to closing Guantanamo.
But ultimately, the basic question here is whether Obama actually wants to resolve the contradiction he himself has articulated as a pressing national challenge. He has sought to deal with this contradiction by arguing that we must have a “debate” about the proper security-civil liberties balance. But this effectively casts this as a process that will be resolved at some unforeseen point in the future. What’s more, by reserving the right to continue with an array of aggressive tactics, Obama is also confirming that he sees his own role as “commander in chief” as one that requires him to err on the side of national security over civil liberties when he deems fit, even as he continues to ask us, in effect, to trust him to work towards getting that balance right. That position has become harder to sustain in the wake of the new revelations. And it will be on Obama to prove that he is seriously interested in restoring the proper balance that he himself seems to hold up as the ideal goal.
* SPLIT ON RIGHT OVER NSA REVELATIONS? Karl Rove has come out in defense of the intelligence community’s datamining, claiming that it can stop terror attacks. The Wall Street Journal also editorializes today along the same lines. Meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul is introducing a bill that would close the legal loophole that allows the practice.
What we’re seeing here is familiar divisions on the right over national security policy, along a fault line that pits those who embraced Bush’s war on terror tactics (some of which Obama has expanded) versus libertarian senators who condemn national security state overreach (recall Paul’s drone filibuster, for example).
* A MIXED JOBS REPORT: The monthly report for May is in: 175,000 nonfarm jobs added, with unemployment essentially unchanged at 7.6 percent. There were minor revisions to the two previous months. More austerity right away!
* RUBIO’S DELICATE IMMIGRATION DANCE CONTINUES: The Florida Senator backtracks from his threat to walk away from the Gang of Eight compromise, which is a positive step. I’ve been skeptical of this threat from the beginning: Rubio needs to appear as if he’s aggressively guarding the right’s interest in these talks, so he has to be seen to keep pushing for the bill to be made ever more conservative. But he knows he can’t be seen scuttling the bill, which is why he is now vowing:
“I won’t abandon this issue until it’s done, until we get a bill passed.”
Good to hear.
* MIXED POLLING ON IRS SCANDAL: A New York Times/CBS poll finds a plurality of Americans, 44-40, thinks “members of the Obama administration were involved” in the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, though that is some pretty vague and inconclusive wording. Meanwhile, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that only 36 percent think the administration directed the targeting, though a plurality of 40 percent think the administration at least knew about it.
Overall, the polling suggests Americans rightly see the IRS targeting as a big deal, but aren’t prepared to accept the right’s lurid charges of Nixonian presidential wrongdoing on the part of Obama in particular.
* HOUSE GOP UNVEILS “NEW” ANTI-OBAMACARE EFFORT: Politico reports:
House Republicans are planning a coordinated messaging operation against Obamacare starting this summer. They call it HOAP — the House Obamacare Accountability Project. The effort will target the negative effects the GOP says the law will have on jobs, health costs and access to health care.
If you don’t succeed after trying 37 times, try, try again.
* THE GOP’S UNDYING CRUSADE TO SCUTTLE OBAMACARE: Paul Krugman’s column today asks a good question: Is there even any rational political motive in the drive by GOP governors to reject Obamacare by opting out of the Medicaid expansion? As he notes:
If Obamacare works (which it will), millions of middle-income voters — the kind of people who might support either party in future elections — will see major benefits, even in rejectionist states. So rejectionism won’t discredit health reform. What it might do, however, is drive home to lower-income voters — many of them nonwhite — just how little the G.O.P. cares about their well-being, and reinforce the already strong Democratic advantage among Latinos, in particular.
If states that are actually trying to make the law work see success (as looks to be happening in California), it could make the rejectionist states look even worse. The big story here is that the base won’t let the GOP move on and accept that Obamacare is the law of the land already.
* “OBAMACARE HAS BECOME THE OPIATE OF THE GOP”: Relatedly, Noam Scheiber has a provocative, well argued piece predicting that the GOP’s undying obsession with repealing Obamacare — which is now heavily shaping the party’s strategy for 2014 — will damage the party long term, perhaps irrevocably:
To put the problem in Marxian terms, Obamacare has become the opiate of the GOP. By its own admission, the party must broaden its appeal to Latinos, gays, and young voters. It needs an economic agenda that encompasses more than tax cuts for the rich and brutal spending cuts. It has to persuade voters it’s more than just a nihilistic force bent on triggering global financial apocalypse if it doesn’t get its way in Washington. And yet, when party leaders so much as broach these liabilities, conservatives revolt and the leadership caves, appeasing them with an issue whose political utility peaked two-and-a-half years ago.
Just as has happened with the “scandals,” the Obamacare repeal push has become a convenient and easy way to paper over those problems.
* AND YOUR SORELY NEEDED COMIC RELIEF, TIM HUELSKAMP EDITION: Roll Call’s Steven Dennis catches Tea Party fiscal conservative GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp pushing hard for a $400 million Department of Homeland Security lab to be built in his Kansas district, while Dems are denouncing it as an unnecessary boondoggle. The kicker is that Huelskamp previously drew sharp criticism in his (apparently conservative) district for opposing the project. Yes, government spending is a wonderful thing, after all!