Presidents aren’t moral leaders and don’t even run Washington. Obama has killed people in the line of duty and is doing things now that he scorned as a Senator 6 years ago. Furthermore, whistle-blowers as well as the President’s best intentions are driving the debate. Nevertheless, this may be the right time and Obama may be the right President to respond finally in a significant way to Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the growth of the security state in his remarkable Farewell Address of January 1961.
Obama has plenty of political capital to spend on taming the security state and ending what he’s called disdainfully the “borderless war on terror.” Far more than he spent boldly in his first term nationalizing GM and Chrysler, supporting gay marriage, and, by executive order, creating a path for young illegal immigrants eventually to become American citizens.
Three and a half years before his own Farewell Address, Obama has already formally acknowledged that he’s uncomfortable with the emergency powers he’s inherited. He has set down the warrior mantle that served so many presidents too well. Now, Obama—with vigorous allies on both the left and right—had better make sure that he doesn’t end up meekly passing them on to the next president, whomever that may be.
It is not clear whether Edward Snowden's leaks have compromised US intelligence effectiveness. (Conceivably, there’s an international terrorist cell out there that actually thought it was operating outside the reach of US and allied government surveillance.) What he has done, however, is clear.
We now know what we can’t un-know: All three pillars of the US constitution—with allied cooperation—have constructed the necessary technical infrastructure to monitor discreetly all our associations, and our personal, political, and business utterances.
It is beside the point to say that the Executive Branch presently is not using this awesome machinery unilaterally and that Barack Obama is only concerned with potential terrorist activities. Presidents come and go. And Congress has a terrible record of going along whenever the Executive invokes national security concerns.
Washington is awash with people who think they’re at war with political extremism as well as political terrorism.
The US Constitution wouldn’t have separated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government if the Founding Fathers believed that only prudent, civil people would get their hands on power. Furthermore, they never envisaged that those three power centers would only be independent of one another in public, and that in private they could act as one.
It’s ironic: Obama wins on the economy and gets a Nobel Prize for peace, a constitutional lawyer overseeing the creation of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.
Obviously, Obama will take his time before responding to Snowden, libertarians, civil rights advocates, Senator Rand Paul, and probably others. After all, he has to run as well as tame the security apparatus. Nevertheless, his government has diminished our freedom to think and associate freely. Unless he takes action—ideally, along with a decision from the Supreme Court—he will end up legitimizing the accumulation of a rainy day file on everything we do.
This wouldn’t harm vacuous, harmless people or their pursuit of happiness. However, those with new things to say, with grievances, with extreme views and rude opinions would lose their privacy to the brutes and nervous bureaucrats listening in.