Obama's journey from critic to overseer of spying

Obama's journey from critic to overseer of spying

Obama's journey from critic to overseer of spying

He will go down in history as someone who defended surveillance rather than reformed it

As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama visited a centre for scholars in August 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. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”

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 has once again gotten out of control. On Friday, he will give another speech, this time at the Justice Department defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties.

The journey between those two speeches reflects the transition from the backbench of the United States senate to the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate sceptical of government power 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 said that even as a senator, Obama supported robust surveillance as long as it was legal and appropriate, and that as president he still shares the concerns about overreach he expressed years ago. But they said his 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. “There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom.”

At the same time, aides said Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the NSA,” Plouffe said, citing specifically the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones. “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.

All of which leads to worries by critics of government surveillance that he will not go far enough on Friday. “If the speech is anything like what is being reported, the president will go down in history for having retained and defended George W Bush’s surveillance programmes rather than reformed them,” said Anthony D Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Obama first confronted the questions of national security and privacy during his 2004 campaign for Senate, taking aim at the Patriot Act for “violating our fundamental notions of privacy” and declaring that “we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries.”

But as a former Obama aide put it recently, “The rhetoric was probably sharper than his votes.” 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 programmess. Obama realised he would “take my lumps” from the left and said it “was not an easy call for me,” but he argued that putting the programs under the jurisdiction of the intelligence court restored accountability.

Shift in agenda

As a result, after he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogation techniques he deemed torture and trying, futilely, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “There wasn’t really any serious discussion of what NSA was up to,” said a former intelligence official, who like others did not want to be named describing internal conversations.

Just weeks after the inauguration, Judge Reggie B Walton issued a secret ruling reprimanding the NSA for violating its own procedures. But when Obama was briefed, the case did not stir consternation. The president’s team instructed the Justice Department to fix the problem, but “this was not a central concern and he was very quick in knowing how to deal with it,” said a former administration official.

The calculus had shifted enough that Obama began presiding over a record number of leak prosecutions. 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 Romero of the ACLU.

That was brought home even more starkly at Christmas in 2009 when a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard an airliner. At a meeting at the White House afterward, an agitated Obama “was extremely firm” with intelligence officials, saying that he “expected us to do better,” recalled one who was in the room.

“We hadn’t had a major attack in a number of years and the fact that this guy came as close as he did — basically the detonator didn’t work — and the fact that we hadn’t detected it in advance really came as a shock to them,” said John E McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director who participated in a review of the incident for the administration.

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, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.

Obama appointed a panel to review the programmes. “The point we made to him was, ‘We’re not really concerned about you, Barack, but God forbid some other guy’s in the office five years from now and there’s another 9/11,’ ” said Richard A Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser who served on the panel. 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 abilities.

On the other hand, Obama was acutely aware of the risks of being seen as handcuffing the security agencies. “Whatever reforms he makes, you can be sure if there’s another incident — and the odds are there will be in our history — there’ll be someone on CNN within seconds saying if the president hadn’t hamstrung the intelligence community, this wouldn’t have happened,” Axelrod said.

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