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Privacy, Security and Obama's Uphill Quest for Trust

Privacy, Security and Obama's Uphill Quest for Trust

By Alexis Simendinger - June 11, 2013

When the IRS scrutinized conservative political groups that applied for tax exemptions, President Obama said he had been completely in the dark about what he labeled IRS “wrongdoing.”

When the Justice Department swept through journalists’ phone and email records in search of government leakers without informing media companies, Obama defended prosecutors’ efforts to safeguard classified national secrets.

When a government contractor revealed the National Security Agency harvested innocent people’s phone and Internet activities in an ongoing hunt for terrorists, the president said three branches of government approved necessary techniques he hid from the public.

In each case, trust in government is at the center of debate. And in each case, new revelations tugged Obama into conversations he did not initiate involving the limits of privacy, the influence of politics, definitions of federal overreach, red lines for lawful public protections, and what the president now defends as his hunt for “balance.”

Just weeks ago, he dismissed as poppycock conservatives’ suspicions that the federal government sought to transform a proposed network of gun background checks into a shadowy new database of America’s guns and gun owners. Obama denied the government would do such a thing, but the National Rifle Association and its members begged to differ. A majority of Americans told pollsters they embraced universal background checks, but the Senate’s vote against the measure told a different story.

Obama is now tangled among the secrets he had kept for five years, the operations of government he said he never approved, and accusations that this administration’s means are not justified by its avowed ends.

In a span of weeks, the president has assailed both rogue government shenanigans and a rogue truth-teller about government actions. He insists the government is well managed and responsible -- responsible enough to leave dots among gun owners unconnected; to protect the lives of U.S. diplomats working in hazardous locales; to mandate that everyone buy health insurance by next year; to use investigatory discretion with the Fourth Estate and news sources; and to search through Americans’ phone and email records without trolling through their private lives.

“This is not the manner by which he had hoped to have the debate,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney conceded Monday, following revelations about NSA data-collection published by The Washington Post, and U.S. government intelligence provided to The Guardian newspaper by now former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden.

Having waited until his second term to publicly discuss Bush-era clandestine policies he expanded, Obama is now forced -- during a distracting period of “scandal” investigations on Capitol Hill and partisan frictions with lawmakers -- to defend his basic executive management skills, square his public boasts about transparency, and edit his second-term governing narrative.

The president argued on Friday that he’s been accountable to the judicial branch and to congressional intelligence committees, if not necessarily to the general public or to the news media (in their role as champion for the public interest). In that sense, Obama suggested he’d resolved questions about appropriate trade-offs, in part by advising some key lawmakers and seeking approval from judges who have approved all government requests presented to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Pummeled by the news coverage, but seemingly comfortable that most Americans believe they’d rather see terrorists thwarted than keep everyone’s Verizon and AT&T calling patterns out of NSA computers, Obama conceded a public conversation about government’s motives and trustworthiness might be beneficial.

“One of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is, how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe, and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved,” he told reporters. “I welcome this debate.”

Even some of the president’s most outspoken supporters found themselves navigating a complex argument that Obama, with all his secret-keeping, can be trusted to manage the NSA, while the commander-in-chief whose counter-terrorism policies he adapted, George W. Bush, was not. Future presidents who inherit Obama’s policies may also be more suspect, according to some progressives.

Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, tweeted on Sunday, “I do have a lot of faith in President Obama, so it does matter to me that he defends it [NSA]. But I don’t have faith in all future presidents. … If all this attention creates a system where neither a government nor a gigantic company knows all my business, I will feel better.”

Thus far, Americans -- and most especially conservatives -- seem more upset about IRS screening of nonprofit groups than secret NSA or Justice snooping through phone records and the Internet. Expectations of privacy, whether online, on telephones, or at airports, changed a lot after 9/11.

Bush launched the public debate about online and telephone intelligence-gathering, along with the government’s scrutiny of financial transactions, leading up to the enactment of the USA Patriot Act of 2001. The law was reauthorized in 2005 and amended in 2006 and 2011.

As a wartime president, Bush was an unabashed enthusiast about using all available tools, and confident that data-gathering and civil liberties could co-exist, especially in Americans’ gauzy imaginations.

“The presumption ought to be that citizens ought to know as much as possible about the government’s decision-making,” Bush told reporters at the time. “I know there is a tension now between making the decision [about what] can be exposed without jeopardizing the war on terror. And I understand there's a suspicion that we're too security-conscious,” he said.

During Obama’s push to end global conflicts -- in part by quietly expanding some Bush-initiated policies (for example, drone killings in Pakistan and Yemen; cyber-attacks against Iran; terror hunting through privately held electronic data) -- the president has placed himself in the quicksand Bush had uncovered.

What is the price of security? What happened to trust in government? Who really looks after the public interest? How extensive is Washington’s reach into private lives? And who has the right to decide?

Obama’s second term is about those questions.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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