Yesterday’s speech was destined to be disappointing to many. Progressives are used to this – Obama says the right things, acknowledges the problems, expresses complex ideas with singular clarity – then triangulates back to a position somewhere between that and the status quo, which straight talk might undermine. By reports I’ve read, the speech was much more favorably received at NSA than ACLU, for instance.
The New York Times concluded that Obama essentially backtracked on his position from last summer, when he strongly defended NSA programs against the disclosures of Snowden. Now, of course, he has a more balanced approach.
But it is not just progressives who are not satisfied with the “middle course” – the President obfuscated, misled, and did not address some of the most important issues from a technological and economic perspective.
No mention of NSA undermining cryptographic standards and devices. No acknowledgement that Snowden caused the debate, though this is amply evident. By the evidence we have, we know the government does collect content of ordinary citizens, both in the US and abroad. Against the evidence, Obama denied this. He made extremely misleading remarks about bulk data collection:
This brings me to program that has generated the most controversy these past few months – the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215. Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke – this program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls – meta-data that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.
This is an incredible statement. Actually, as smart as he is, Obama should know better than this. Here he is talking about a specific program, apparently referring to the program originally revealed last June where bulk metadata is demanded from companies like Verizon. The problem is that there are many programs that collect this data. There are back up systems of redundant back up systems and NSA usually has several ways to get at any specific piece of data. Maybe “this program” that he is specifically talking about at that moment doesn’t get content, but plenty of other programs do. This was a chance for an educational moment that Obama blew, as he triangulated back to safe support for the National Security State.
We have to remember not only “this program”, but all “these programs” have not provably stopped any terrorist incident, while they have wholesale gutted the Fourth amendment and seriously damaged the First.
Obama did set the stage for a real educational moment – to set all of this in a larger context. I’ll do that for him now, and elaborate in future articles. This is a theme I will return to again, because I feel it is a central issue of our times.
We see now that our intelligence agencies have compromised our internet, our privacy, the trust of our allies and many other negative factors – including massive budgets that prevent us from pursuing other priorities. For all of this, what do we have? Do we have a definitively foiled terrorist plot? No. Not one. Because that is not the point.
The point is that in the area of intelligence, like so many other industries and endeavors, the government is the enabler, not the regulator, not the overseer. We see again and again, members of congress treating crooks and liars like rock stars. Whether it’s Jaime Diamond or Keith Alexander, our elected officials are not conducting oversight. They are just cheering on the industries that have bought and captured our government.
Intelligence and National Security are two sides of the same coin, and many companies and individuals overlap between the two.
How it works is very clear if you’re willing to look the truth squarely in the eye. Our military and it’s private partners are developing ever more advanced weapons systems that it uses against people around the world. When a drone kills a whole family in Pakistan, more “terrorists” are created. There really are people who want to harm America. The blowback from our own military actions abroad is real an creates the justification for the system of surveillance. The more people we kill, the more they hate us, and the greater will be the need for systems of mass surveillance. It is an ever-accelerating cycle.
It’s a win/win. Companies are making lots of money, there is incredible economic opportunity here. All it needs is to be stoked with a little fear now and then, and there are jihadis out there who are willing to provide that. Scare the taxpayers into bigger military budgets, more international adventurism, more blowback, more surveillance. This is how or system works.
I think in his heart Obama understands this. His remarks as a young senator indicated such. But now he sits at the center of the power structure. He more than any president has probably been scared out of his wits at the many plots against him personally, and this may play into his view of intelligence in general. But this was the real teachable moment – to give people a real understanding of the military industrial complex, but Obama would not rise to the occasion. That’s not who he is.
Having said that, Obama is a great president. He didn’t do so well in this speech, but he’s generally pretty honest and straightforward. Some statements in this speech notwithstanding, he is generally seen as a person of high integrity. That’s actually a problem.
I ask the reader to imagine an NSA controlled by Chris Christie. The administration of the once presumptive republican nominee has shown that it will do almost anything to abuse power and settle petty scores with perceived political opponents. We may not be so worried about Obama, but he’s not the one we have to worry about. This system will still be there when he is gone.