As cracks are beginning to show in the previously impervious walls protecting the National Intelligence Agency's panopticon of domestic and global surveillance, a survey of recent editorials and reporting indicates that the political legacy of President Obama—once-vaunted as a "constitutional law" professor and defender of civil liberties—is now deeply enmeshed with controversial nature of the agency's programs.
With a combination of one-two (or right-left) punches over the last several days, officials at the NSA and the president who has consistently defended their vast surveillance network have both been hammered—though the term "slobberknockered" was also used—by a series of developments that put to question the legality of the agency's dragnet spying approach.
Described as a game-changing development by many, the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon on Monday was seen to vindicate the leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden while simultaneously exposing Obama to deep criticism for the agency's behavior while under his command.
As Politico's Josh Gerstein phrased it, Leon's rulling "underscores the awkwardness of a president who won office in part by railing against the national security state established by President George W. Bush trying to defend much of that establishment while also maintaining his vow to restore civil liberties and bring an end to what seemed like a permanent war on terror."
In a development over the weekend, leaked details of the recommendations being drafted by the panel appointed by Obama came back with stronger recommendations than most predicted. Though still considered a watered-down and "whitewashed" report by most progressive analysts, even the NSA's strongest critics conceded that the panel went further than expected in criticizing the NSA programs made public by Snowden.
Even the Wall Street Journal chimed in, writing in an editorial that "word on Capitol Hill" was "that the scope and radicalism of the recommendations stunned even this White House, not least because the task force was stacked with Obama loyalists."
As Politico's Matthew M. Aid reports Tuesday, the fissure between the White House and the NSA has grown as the Snowden revelations continued to pile up and as public and congressional pressure also mount. According to Aid's report:
Intelligence officials confirm that it is true that over the past two months, thanks to the steady drumbeat of shocking newspaper exposés about the agency’s activities, the NSA has lost a good deal of support in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, and on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, the agency’s once harmonious relationship with this country’s largest high-tech companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, is now a shattered smoking ruin, NSA officials fret. Only the “big three” American telecommunications companies—AT&T, Verizon and Sprint—appear to remain firmly supportive, and even they are beginning to put some distance between themselves and the NSA as shareholders ask pointed questions about their clandestine relationship with the agency.
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In this political climate, it was perhaps inevitable that the Review Group would recommend making substantive changes in the way the NSA operates. “We had to go this route,” a Review Group staffer told me in an interview. “If we did not recommend placing some additional controls and checks and balances on the NSA’s operations, the high-tech companies were going to kill us and Congress was going to burn the house down. Besides, our report is non-binding, so who knows what the White House is going to accept and what they are going to toss out.”
When asked what he thought NSA’s reaction to the panel’s recommendations was going to be, this source said, “Well, I’m not going to get any Christmas cards from [NSA director] Keith Alexander this year, but I think I can live with that."
Writing at The Nation on Monday, John Nichols argues that congressional leaders should follow the federal court ruling by strengthening their objections to the NSA.
A left-right coalition that extends from Congressmen Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning Republican, to Congressman John Conyers, a progressive Democrat, has raised repeated challenges to the NSA spying regimen.
Now, Congress needs to step up to what Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Florida, refers to as “the spying-industrial complex.”
A number of members are ready. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to Judge Leon's ruling by saying: “In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. Today’s ruling is an important first step toward reining in this agency but we must go further. I will be working as hard as I can to pass the strongest legislation possible to end the abuses by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.”
The outlines for legislative action have already been presented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that work on privacy issues.
Nichols concludes that members of Congress are under no obligation to wait for the courts to process challenges to government surveillance, but "can, and should, act in defense of civil liberties" by immediately moving on a legislative fix designed to check the overzealous and "unconstituional" behavior of the NSA.
The nagging question remains: If Congress does move for strong reforms like the ones laid out by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other civil libertarian and privacy groups, would the President Obama break with his so-far consistent defense of the NSA and support their cause?