Obama’s position on need for surveillance has evolved considerably over the years
Opinion: President was taken aback by uproar over Snowden revelations and by finding out that many Americans did not trust him
As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama visited a centre for scholars in October 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared.
More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think is once again out of control.
Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate sceptical of government power has found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety. Aides say the president’s views have been shaped to a striking degree by the reality of waking up every day in the White House responsible for heading off the myriad threats he finds in his daily intelligence briefings. “When you get the package every morning, it puts steel in your spine,” said David Plouffe, the president’s longtime adviser.
At the same time, aides said Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward Snowden just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the NSA,” Plouffe said. “I think it was disturbing to most people and I think he found it disturbing.”
Yet it is hard to express indignation at actions of the government after five years of running it, and some involved in surveillance note that it was Obama who pushed national security agencies to be aggressive in hunting terrorists. “For some, his outrage does ring a little bit hollow,” said a former counterterrorism official.
Obama first confronted the questions of national security and privacy during his 2004 campaign for the US Senate, taking aim at the Patriot Act for “violating our fundamental notions of privacy”. He joined other Democrats fighting the renewal of the Patriot Act until it was amended to address civil liberties concerns.
As a presidential candidate, Obama criticised George W Bush’s “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide”. But as a former Obama aide put it recently, “The rhetoric was probably sharper than his votes [in the senate].”
By summer 2008, with the Democratic nomination secured and the White House now a real possibility, Obama voted for legislation essentially ratifying Bush’s surveillance programmes.
After he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogations techniques he deemed torture and closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Guantánamo remains open many years later.
Obama was told before his inauguration of a supposed plot by Somali extremists to attack the ceremony. “The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way,” recalled Juan Carlos Zarate, the outgoing counterterrorism adviser to Bush, who worked with the Obama team on the threat. So while instituting additional procedural changes, like more audits, Obama undertook no major overhaul of the surveillance programmes he inherited.
When civil liberties advocates visited to press him to do more to reverse Bush’s policies, Obama pushed back. “He reminded me that he had a different role to play, that he was commander in chief and that he needed to protect the American people,” recalled Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Feeling little pressure to curb the security agencies, Obama largely left them alone until Snowden began disclosing secret programmes last year. Obama was angry at the revelations, privately excoriating Snowden as a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions. He was surprised at the uproar that ensued, advisers said, and particularly that so many Americans did not trust him.
The president felt he had to “lay down some roadblocks in addition to what we have now so that once you’re gone it’ll be harder” to abuse spying capabilities, one White House counterterrorism adviser said. On the other hand, he was acutely aware of the risks of being seen as handcuffing the security agencies for fear that should there be another major incident he would be blamed.
Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser working on yesterday’s speech, said the president sees the issue as two separate questions – abuse of government power and the extent of government power. “We have an ability to do essentially anything technologically,” says Rhodes. “So do we have the appropriate legal and policy overlay to ensure that’s focused?” That is the question the president will have been hoping to answer yesterday . – (New York Times service)