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Yes We Can: The NSA and Obama

Why is President Obama so permissive with regard to excesses of the U.S. intelligence apparatus?

January 29, 2014

Credit: Pete Souza - White House

Few of his supporters would have ever thought that Barack Obama’s famous 2008 presidential campaign slogan would end up turning into the collective mantra of the U.S. intelligence community during his term in office.

But here we are: “Yes, We Can” is the best way to describe the arrogant attitude of the more than 50,000 spooks employed by the U.S. government, whenever they are faced with any questions pertaining to the legitimacy of their actions.

Their arrogance is as breathtaking as are their mostly phony protestations of operating under a carefully calibrated web of checks and balances. And Mr. Obama’s timidity in tackling both phenomena is astonishing for a man who is a constitutional lawyer by training.

At this stage, the memory of the Church Committee is not just faint, but depressing. In 1975, Idaho Senator Frank Church chaired a special committee — the forerunner of the Senate Intelligence Committee — and mounted a vigorous, no-holds-barred investigation of the overreach of the spying agencies during the Nixon era.

The idea that a similarly vigorous defense of the vitality of American democracy, much needed though it is, could be mounted is simply unimaginable today. By whom? Senator Feinstein, the current Senate Intelligence Committee chair?

Oversight and systematically overlooking things

The current set of characters on Capitol Hill has given a new meaning to the hallowed term “Congressional Oversight.” It’s no longer about effective legislative checks-and-balances on the actions of the executive branch.

Rather than seeing their role as sentries against the executive branch’s gradual slide into a surveillance state, these fine members of Congress have a different “vision.” Eyes wide shut, they see themselves as the intelligence apparatus’s advocates and propellants.

Under those circumstances, no falsehood or lie even by the seniormost intelligence officials, such as by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, has any consequences any longer.

The “oversight” now practiced in the Congress is thus of the kind where one consciously overlooks something critical that is right under one’s eyes. Oversight as deliberate lapses, not providing the constitutionally mandated counterweight.

Captured by the apparatus

But what about Barack Obama? Why has he been so captured by the apparatus? The bubble in the White House is one reason. Relative youth and inexperience another. Fear of being held accountable “in case something happens” a third. But let’s keep personality traits and political considerations to the side.

Obama’s hesitation to stand up for democratic controls of the intelligence machinery is indicative of a fundamental misconception of American freedom.

The freedom that is now considered America’s most sacred good is the idea of the inviolability of the American territory.

To that end, all pivotal constitutional rights that shaped America’s founding, the idea of privacy and the concept of robust checks and balances between the branches of government, have been moved to the sidelines.

The truth of the matter is that the overarching goal that lies behind the inviolability idea — “read my lips: no new terrorist attacks” — is an illusory, if laudable goal.

Island nations are more fearful

Nations have long had to cope with the pain and frustration of domestic and international terrorism. Like it or not, it is part of being alive.

The idea of inviolability that the intelligence community is trying to sell certainly resonates with the American public. Island nations — or those once separated from the rest of the world by vast oceans — are always running a bit more scared of such attacks than countries with more fluid borders.

But in practical terms, declaring the U.S. territory sacrosanct, at best, is simply a sentimental proposition. It cannot be delivered.

But rather than exploring this proposition, Obama has bought fully into the idea that the workings of the intelligence community, if left to its own devices, can deliver on the idea of inviolability.

Seeking protection

That does protect him politically from being exposed by standing up for constitutional and democratic rights — the very things he advertised himself as being dedicated to in his 2008 campaign.

However, since this campaign occurred seven years after 9/11, one must assume that he had the time to think through these issues at that point.

Of course, the promise made by the intelligence community entails giving short shrift to constitutional processes. Obama’s response? So be it. That’s the price we have to pay to stay safe. That’s the same kind of circular and closed logic sold by George W. Bush.

Balancing constitutional values

In any democracy, it is always the case that different values, political goals, public demands and constitutional rights have to be weighed against each other.

But there is no denying that the current practice in Washington — to declare the intelligence services, and especially the NSA, effectively as sacrosanct — runs completely counter to the historical traditions and motives that led to the founding of the United States.

Acts of terrorism are, in the end, unavoidable. And the NSA’s goal and promise — to make the United States “safe” — is not only undeliverable, but comes at great costs. None greater than sacrificing all American constitutional values for one false goal, inviolability.

A technology-based cordon sanitaire?

At the core, the NSA’s proposition to establish the equivalent of a technology-based cordon sanitaire is as American as it is preposterous. Equally American is the schizophrenia apparent in its zero tolerance for ways to detect possible terrorism and its permissive acceptance of gun violence at home. In 2012, 91 children died in the United States from gun violence.

But the country has a penchant for resorting to technological answers, especially when it comes to dealing with prickly social and political issues.

Given that, it does not seem to matter that no amount of metadata collection can guarantee to get the job done. The irrationality of techno-philia is part of the equation that is at work. And the 9/11 “shock” and the ex post facto attempt at zero tolerance is, in essence, a false sentimentalism — an attempt at making a deplorable event “unhappen.”

In fact, there is a powerful argument that all this data collection is but one gigantic job creation program. Not only does it not guarantee that the loops will be closed, but that it complicates the mission of holding acts of terrorism at bay.

Inter-agency jealousy

Lack of interagency cooperation is traditionally the reason why things fail in the United States — as was very much the case with the FBI and CIA in 2001.

Ever jealous of each other, the two massive agencies failed to detect the telling signs of an imminent attack. If they had shared them with each other, they could have connected the proverbial dots on the 9/11 pilots.

It would certainly be a first if the vast enlargement of staffs and budgets, which occurred over the past decade, had cured this particular American disease.

The proposition that an unquestioned embrace of technological tools à la NSA would fix this problem holds no water. All it does is to improve the sales prospects of tech marketing firms.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Al Jazeera on January 28, 2014.


Obama’s failure to rein in US intelligence is indicative of a fundamental misconception of American freedom.

Obama’s famous “Yes, We Can” campaign slogan has become the collective mantra of the US intelligence community.

When it comes to intelligence, the term “Congressional Oversight” has a new meaning: Let’s turn a blind eye.

The freedom that is now considered America’s most sacred good is the idea of the inviolability of American territory.

The idea of inviolability that the intel community is trying to sell certainly resonates with the US public.

Declaring territory sacrosanct is a sentimental idea. Paired with the NSA’s techno optimism, it is dangerous.

With regard to intelligence, Obama practices the same kind of circular and closed logic seen in George W. Bush.

Declaring the NSA untouchable runs counter to the founding principles of the US.

The NSA’s establishing the equivalent of a tech-based cordon sanitaire is as American as it is preposterous.

The US has a habit of resorting to tech answers when it comes to dealing with prickly social & political issues.

The NSA’s unrestrained techno-philia is dangerous. It makes cynical use of the sentimentalism of the US public.

The NSA, if left to its own devices, promises to make the 9/11 shock “unhappen.”