In the immediate days leading up to President Obama’s January 17 speech on the National Security Agency, news stories and leaks from the White House suggested the president would largely ignore the set of overhauls that had been put forward by his own presidential review panel—Peter Baker’s New York Times front-page story, “Obama’s Path from Critic to Overseer of Spying,” is a good example. But then the president gave his speech and, while the changes he offered up were not as radical as the panel’s recommendations, he did go farther than the pre-speech spin stories led you to believe by requiring each and every search of the NSA database to have judicial approval, which is a major modification to the program.
So, what happened? Well, if the recent Wall Street Journal report (“White House Added Last-Minute Curbs on NSA before Speech”) by Siobham Gorman is accurate, then it seems the president and his aides allowed themselves to be bullied by the threat that if he didn’t propose further curbs on NSA’s collection program that it would “provoke a public protest from privacy groups and from members of his own review panel.”
I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this report comes on the heels of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s detailed accounts of just how much the White House’s decisions are driven by electoral politics and polls of the moment. Of course, one might have hoped that, given how much coverage Gates’s book Duty had gotten, that the president would have been a little more sensitive to the perception that he once again was letting headlines drive core national security concerns. But apparently not.
Nope, what we get is a president who is totally consistent in his decision-making and who has, as the Journal story implies, little or no center of gravity when it comes to being chief executive. The idea that an issue of this importance, an issue that had been under review and debate for months, could be so cavalierly handled at the last moment is just another reason to wonder just how much more damage can this administration do the nation’s security over the next three years.