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Obama's Real Mistake: Downplaying Terror


Many of our peers in the blogosphere and in the media seem to be enjoying jeering at President Obama for announcing new oversight measures for the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance programs under some duress. “Whistleblower Wins” screamed the Huffington Post headline. Drudge ran with “Stared Down By Snowden“. Snowden made him do it, the thinking seems to go, so the president ‘lost’ in some way. This kind of simplistic political reporting is unfortunate. In a critical national security story such as this one, it manages to both trivialize what’s at stake while missing an opportunity to critically think about how President Obama’s own policies may have gotten us here in the first place.

Obama’s mistake was not his approval of the NSA’s vast surveillance program. His biggest mistake has been to downplay the persistent, ongoing terror threat for political gain. As a result, many Americans don’t understand why the government is so frantically collecting so much data. After all, if Al Qaeda is decimated and on the run, what’s the big deal?

But of course Al Qaeda is not on its last legs and the President knows it. Thousands of highly motivated people, some with real skills and resources, are constantly working to kill Americans abroad or at home and targeting our embassies and other vulnerable spots. That gap, between a presidential rhetoric relentlessly projecting a pre 9/11 ‘normalcy’ on the one hand, and an intelligence push more systematic and far reaching than anything the Bush administration ever did on the other, is jarring to a lot of people—including, one suspects, young idealistic people like Edward Snowden.

In a sense, we are fortunate that the bankruptcy of the administration’s claims to have liquidated the terror threat are coming just as this controversy is heating up.

We do not favor dismantling intelligence tools that have served us well. It would be grossly irresponsible to abandon intelligence tools that appear to offer significant help in this serious fight. It is now almost 12 years since 9/11 and it is clear, despite self serving political claims, that we are in for a long struggle against a resourceful and determined enemy. We need to figure out how to manage our intel while doing the least possible damage to civil liberties and privacy rights at home. Because the threat is international, we must also work with other countries whose citizens and interests are involved, so that as far as possible our activities are seen as necessary and legitimate by our allies.

It’s impossible to do this without some restraint and without a better process of review and protection than we now have. We’re glad the President realizes this, and on the whole we applaud his evident determination to tweak rather than to trash our intel system.

But we also hope he will level with the American people more and be much more frank about the dangers and risks that have convinced him and his key aides that we still need to keep our guard up.

[Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • bpuharic

    HHHmmmm…let’s see..WRM says the president claims to have ‘liquidated’ (sic) the terrorist threat


    The temporary closing of U.S. embassies in the Middle East is “a reminder that for all the progress we’ve made — getting (Osama) bin Laden, putting al Qaeda between Afghanistan and Pakistan back on its heels — that this radical, violent extremism is still out there,” Obama told Leno at one point. “And we’ve got to stay on top of it.”

    So WRM says Obama claims to have ‘liquidated’ the terrorist threat

    Obama clearly never said any such think.

    I think WRM owes his readers…and the President…an apoology

    • Tom

      While the President has retracted some of his statements, he has said some things that were…slightly more exuberant.
      Not recently, mind, but those were made. No apologies are necessary.

      • bpuharic

        Conservatives are welcome to say the president is a Martian who drinks gasoline if they want. One merely needs proof….a fact, it seems, lost on the conservative crowd.

  • TheCynical1

    But we can’t limit our NSA surveillance, because everything is relevant to terrorism — after all, our dedicated FISA court has so concluded, in secret legal opinions, procured by our constitutional expert President, in proceedings that are transparent, accountable, and overseen by our elected Congress.

  • Maynerd

    The normally prescient WRM appears a bit naive and Pollyannish about our national security state.

    Bush, Obama, and their predecessors have created the infrastructure for a totalitarian state. The collection of metadata on all US citizens has trashed the fourth amendment. Oversight is a farce with FISA rarely rejecting NSA requests with no role for an advocate to appeal their decisions. Now we learn the DEA and god knows what other agencies are given friendly tips from the NSA regarding domestic crimes.

    Bush and Obama may be swell guys and good boy scouts. However, the next president may not be so pure and noble.

    • bpuharic

      It doesn’t matter. That’s why we have checks and balances. It was known even at the founding of the republic that this could happen.

  • Jim__L

    One of my friends (interestingly, Boomer-aged, not Facebook-aged) who works in software is of the opinion that it is impossible to keep secrets using technological means.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Good practices and designs are possible. If there really is no technological way to prevent such spills, the real danger they pose forces us to use other means.

    Divulging these secrets leads to actual deaths, and the capacity for real destruction on the part of people who for whatever reason want to take potshots at the US and US interests.

    If the likes of Snowden can’t be prevented, they need to be discouraged. I don’t believe that it would be 100% effective, but imposing the death penalty on premeditated leakers whose leaks lead to loss of life is one of our only options.

    That said, I vastly prefer a technical solution.

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