Obama‚Äôs Choice
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

President Obama gave an important speech on National Security Agency’s (NSA) huge metadata collection program.

As is Obama’s style, it was an eloquent and measured speech. It did recognize the concerns about civil liberties and the need for checks on NSA.

But in substance, it looks like Obama’s choice will be to allow the NSA to collect and have access to unlimited metadata (and perhaps more).

Though there will be reviews, and in the future the metadata may stay on the servers of private phone and Internet companies, there seems to be no question that NSA will not be able to access this data or will face meaningful restrictions in its ability to collect such information.

In fact, Obama went further, declaring his unwavering support to the NSA and the intelligence community:

Nothing I learned since indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.

This declaration might strain credulity, particularly in view of the fact that the NSA and the intelligence community were quite clearly cavalier about civil liberties and tried to hide it and routinely lied about it.

NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, for example, said clearly before Snowden’s revelations brought the whole thing to light:

the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of those years on people is absolutely false.

Obama’s director of National Intelligence, the agency supposed to oversee the NSA, the CIA and the alphabet soup of US agencies, stated categorically in front of a Senate committee that the NSA does not collect any type of data at all on millions of Americans.

Cavalier enough?

Be that as it may, Obama’s declaration should not have come as a surprise given his presidency’s track record on civil liberties.

But it would come as a huge surprise to anybody who followed Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency.

In the early 2000s, Obama appeared as a passionate defender of civil liberties. In 2003, as a candidate for the Senate, he was a fierce critic of the Patriot Act, calling it “shoddy and dangerous”. (See Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article “State of Deception” for more details).

The turning point of Obama’s career was of course his moving speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he took powerful aim at the Patriot Act, in particular, at its Section 215 in its so-called “library records provision,” which would become the justification for the NSA’s huge data collection on Americans and foreigners. Obama said:

We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agencies poking around our libraries in the red states.

As a senator, he then went on to co-sponsor the Security and Freedom Enhancement Act which would have clipped the wings, or even killed, Section 215 of the Patriot Act. He articulated the case against Section 215 in another one of his brilliant speeches, telling his Senate colleagues that it

seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for.

But then everything changed when Obama became president. Obama appears to have put aside his doubts and concerns about the Patriot Act and civil liberties, and supported all of these programs with few scruples.

So what went on?

Of course we don’t know, but three possibilities present themselves, and reasoning about them is informative on whether we can ultimately trust the state and the politicians in charge of it to safeguard our civil liberties.

The first possibility is that after moving to the White House, Obama became aware of information he did not have as a senator, and this information convinced him that it was futile to worry about civil liberties, and led him to conclude that the intelligence community should receive carte blanche.

The second is that Obama’s scruples were about somebody else having the power to violate others’ civil liberties. Once he came to control that power himself as president, albeit indirectly, he became much more willing to tolerate it even if this meant jeopardizing civil liberties. Put differently, Obama became part of the state and it is in the state’s DNA to want to control information and power.

The third is that Obama did not abandon his concerns and sensibilities wholesale, but is a victim of a typical case of  “career concerns”. Any bureaucrat or politician worries about making choices leading to disastrous outcomes — especially if these choices will make them appear responsible in the eyes of the public. But equally problematic is the failure to take actions that could have prevented such disastrous outcomes. This naturally creates a tendency for aggressively taking preventive actions. Given the importance of a major terrorist attack against Americans for the legacy of any president, this means a huge bias towards supporting secret NSA or CIA activities in principle targeted at terrorists, but in reality severely damaging civil liberties and increasing the power of the state over its citizens.

Though we don’t know for sure, the first possibility seems a little far-fetched. The most likely explanation is therefore a combination of the second and third possibilities.

Whatever the details or the exact balance between the second and third possibilities, there is an ominous conclusion from this. However decent and restrained an individual might be, as soon as he ascends to a position of supreme power, he is likely to behave just like other powerful leaders and support the domination of the state or society with little regard to civil liberties.

But if so, it would be naïve for us to expect the state to police itself.

If the state will be restrained, if it will be responsible and accountable to its citizens and civil society, if it will respect civil liberties, it will not do this out of its own volition. It will do it because society will force it to do so.

If so, Obama will not pardon him and Obama will not thank him, but perhaps we should all thank Edwards Snowden.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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