Sunday, August 11, 2013

President Obama on surveillance programs: Let's look at the whole elephant

Not many people noted that in his press conference on Friday, President Obama admitted to where he thinks he's been wrong about the NSA surveillance programs.
...and probably what’s a fair criticism is my assumption that if we had checks and balances from the courts and Congress, that that traditional system of checks and balances would be enough to give people assurance that these programs were run properly -- that assumption I think proved to be undermined by what happened after the leaks. I think people have questions about this program. And so, as a consequence, I think it is important for us to go ahead and answer these questions.
In other words, his assumption prior to the leaks was that checks and balances from the courts and Congress would be enough oversight for a surveillance program. He didn't think transparency to the American public was necessary. But the leaks have created questions that need to be answered.

And while he admits that his assumption about that is a "fair criticism," the truth is that it is a historical position when it comes to the foreign intelligence community. What administration has ever proactively disclosed their programs/activities? None.  Rightly or wrongly, this kind of information has always been left to Congressional and court oversight. That's why the "secret" FISA court was established in the first place back in 1978 as a result of the Church Committee.

And so I find President Obama's response to this new challenge to be fascinating - while totally typical of his approach.
What I’m going to be pushing the IC to do is rather than have a trunk come out here and leg come out there and a tail come out there, let’s just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at. Let’s examine what is working, what’s not, are there additional protections that can be put in place, and let’s move forward.
In other words, the leaks have created a "blind men and the elephant" scenario.

To deal with the screaming headlines of "IT'S A SNAKE, BY GAWD!!!" the President is suggesting that we look at the whole elephant and examine how its working/not working. 

And so, as we've seen here and here, this administration is declassifying loads of information about these previously secret programs for public consumption - with more to come. This is something that only a real pragmatist can afford to do because the President knows that his intents have always been driven by what works rather than by an ideological/political position that obscures practicality. He can afford to shine a light on his administration and invite his critics to join the conversation on pragmatic solutions...something that I've always called conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy.  
One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee.
Over the past 5 years we've witnessed the President employ this strategy with Republicans. The result is that their continued ideological opposition has left them no option but to marginalize themselves into ever more extremist positions.  He is now employing the same strategy with his critics on the left. Unless they are willing to engage pragmatically, I suspect they will find the same fate.


  1. It's something I said back when this story first broke: even if the program is absolutely necessary, the secrecy surrounding it was undermining the people's confidence in its government. And that lack of confidence is far more dangerous than anything the terrorists could threaten us with.

    1. That is true what you say...however like the GOP are doing with the ACA...trying to undermine the rollout and not wanting to fix any quirks that have come to has the so called PL tried to undermine the trust of the American People by the screaming headlines and misinformation...also is easy to mistrust our government because of so many misdeeds that have been done in the name of gov....but I trust thi President as I have no other...and I do not paint him with that mistrust brush...the PL wants to say to America...see...there is nothing special about President Obama...he is like all the others...but...fortunately for us...they are so wrong!

  2. Why are we so willing to give up our privacy for a few deaths by terrorists while we kill tens of thousands of Americans every year on our highways and with our guns?

    1. The question is one of degree. Governments have always had to have a certain amount of secrecy in the area of national defense and that doesn't bother me. I'm actually glad that the whole question of what the NSA can gather has come out.

      I'm much more concerned about lack of "liberty" due to economic and health issues. People who are living in poverty and/or who are sick, particularly sick from treatable disorders because they have not access to health care, are not "free". I'm more concerned about that than about the NSA logging metadata about my phone calls.

  3. Obama's elephant analogy reminds me of a definition I once saw.

    Elephant: a mouse built to government specifications.

  4. What I like about the ruthless strategy is that the opposition doesn't see the trap set up. They don't see they're dealing with a bullfighter. When one has been singing a song for over thirty years it's hard to change the tune. Who knew you had to come to the table with solutions?