The Magazine

Our Disappearing President

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

One might expect Keith Alexander to advocate on behalf of the two programs at the center of our national debate about terrorism and surveillance. He is, after all, the head of the National Security Agency, which runs them. “It’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent—both here and abroad—in disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks,” Alexander testified last week.

Disappearing President

And it’s not entirely surprising that the four leading members of Congress on intelligence matters would argue on behalf of these programs, known as “215” and “702,” for the sections of the laws that authorize them. Last Thursday, Dutch Ruppersberger and Mike Rogers, the ranking member and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters that the programs are critical components of the government’s efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. One day earlier, Saxby Chambliss and Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made a similar case, as each has done repeatedly since the controversy broke.

House speaker John Boehner weighed in several times, too. “These programs have helped keep America safe. They have enhanced our ability to go after terrorists who want to bring harm to the American people. .  .  . And we are also aware of many examples where they have helped us eliminate terrorist threats.”

At press time, even former vice president Dick Cheney was planning to strip off his waders and put down his fly rod in order to explain and support the surveillance in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. Virtually every public official with detailed knowledge of these programs has spent time over the past two weeks touting their reported successes and arguing for their continuation. 

But not Barack Obama. 

The man most responsible for the continued existence of those programs has spoken just once publicly about them since the recent leaks that brought additional scrutiny, and then only in response to a reporter’s question.

But rather than offer a tutorial on the effectiveness of the programs or an aggressive defense of their necessity, Obama seemed interested primarily in making clear that the programs weren’t his alone and in letting everyone know just how happy he is that the country is having a national debate about them. 

Congress and the courts, he argued, share responsibility for the surveillance.

“Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” he said of “215,” which involves the collection of telephony metadata. “With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs.” 

The president evidently wanted to emphasize the point, saying repeatedly in the course of his meandering answer: “It’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing” and “this program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress but by the FISA court.” Speaking of the second program, Obama explained, “again in this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA court has to authorize it.”

In case anyone missed the point: “What you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved—Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. .  .  . And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout.”

There was another point the president was determined to make. “I welcome this debate,” he declared, adding that the debate is “healthy for our democracy” and “it’s a sign of maturity” and “I think that’s good that we’re having this discussion.” 

President Obama’s only contribution to the discussion was a brief and somewhat apologetic acknowledgment of the obvious point that his administration had decided to continue the programs. “My assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content—that on, you know, net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that.”

The president ended his answer with something of a flourish, combining his reminders about oversight with his enthusiasm for the national discussion. “These programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. .  .  . And we’re happy to have that debate.” So happy that Obama promised “we’ll have a chance to talk further during the course of the next couple days.” 

That was June 7. And that was the last we’ve heard from the president on the subject.

So the president wants a debate, but he doesn’t want to participate.

We’ll acknowledge that this is a tough spot for Obama. He opposed programs like these as a senator and railed against them as a candidate. And less than a month ago, he declared an end to the global war on terror and announced a return to a pre-9/11 approach to al Qaeda. So he’ll face tough questions about why he changed his mind and how he can justify continuing these programs in the face of a diminished threat. 

Too bad. The president decided to continue these surveillance efforts for a reason. Intelligence officials who have spoken with The Weekly Standard about the programs say they are critical components of the U.S. effort to prevent attacks and that losing them would leave gaping holes in the intelligence picture we’ve developed of al Qaeda, its friends, and its sympathizers. Sober, nonhysterical officials tell us that if the programs were gone, we’d be considerably more vulnerable to large-scale mass-casualty attacks.

But skeptics of the programs raise legitimate concerns about privacy and overreach. It’s precisely because these are difficult questions that the president owes the country a detailed explanation of his decision to continue the programs and a robust defense of them. This will almost certainly involve providing specifics on the role they played in thwarting attacks, an unfortunate but necessary step after the misleading leaks about what the programs do.

If Obama isn’t going to end them, he needs to allay people’s concerns and defend them, forthrightly and soon.

 

Recent Blog Posts