The Upside of NSA Reform Is Far Too Small for Obama to Ignore the Downside
The politics of fighting terrorism are heavily and incontrovertibly stacked against loosening surveillance systems, which is precisely why President Obama, in his speech from the Justice Department on Friday, is likely to insist that Congress share the blame.
The New York Times' Peter Baker is not the first to note how Obama's pre-2008 rhetoric is at odds with his current positions on the NSA's surveillance tools, but his report Thursday morning makes clear that the NSA leaks offered new information to the president as well. "[A]ides said Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J. Snowden … just how far the surveillance had gone," Baker writes, including that the cell phones of European leaders were being tapped by the agency. But Baker also points to two moments — reports of a potential attack at Obama's first inauguration and the attempted Christmas Day underwear bombing in 2009 — that, as long-time aide David Plouffe said, put "steel" in Obama's spine.
For the president, there is a massive imbalance between the risk and reward of rolling back the NSA's toolset. If the change to the NSA is the one that the advisory panel Obama convened recommends, the reward is Americans will know that a years-long program of aggregating information about their phone calls has been outsourced to phone companies. And the risk is that the dismantling allows a terror plot to slip through the cracks, and would make President Obama the man who allowed dozens or thousands of Americans to die on his watch — the first president in the post war-on-terror era to do so.