The Corruption of Power
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times has a long article talking about President Obama’s path from an NSA critic to a supporter, and this is the key line, delivered by a nameless ‘former aide’:
‘…he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration.’
This is not the first time we’ve seen this attitude of, ‘I’m trustworthy, so it’s OK’ from President Obama. Remember, back during the last election, President Obama instructed his staff to come up with explicit rules concerning the use of killer drones — rules that the military under Obama did not have — because he was worried how a President like Romney might use the program. Of course, once it became clear that Obama would win re-election, those plans to create rules were put on the shelf.
This is the corruption of power. It’s a belief that we don’t need explicit rules and protections because, ‘I’m trustworthy and I won’t abuse this stuff.’ But just about everyone thinks of themselves as trustworthy — and then an extreme situation comes up…and they abuse that trust just a little bit, because they can, and, hey, they’re trustworthy. And then they abuse it some more. And some more. Or, the next guy abuses it. And the next guy abuses it some more, because there’s a precedent set.
If you’re really trustworthy on issues like this, then you would have an even stronger support for the rules, because you know you’ll never abuse them. It’s actually only if you’re in power and you’re not trustworthy that you fear such rules.
The Times coverage also suggests, as President Obama himself has, that the other big difference is that once he was in power, he ‘better understood the threats,’ as well as how these programs protected us. But that position is undermined by much of the rest of the article, which suggests that the reality is that, once in power, President Obama just didn’t care any more:
‘Feeling little pressure to curb the security agencies, Mr. Obama largely left them alone until Mr. Snowden began disclosing secret programs last year. Mr. Obama was angry at the revelations, privately excoriating Mr. Snowden as a self-important narcissist who had not thought through the consequences of his actions. ‘He was surprised at the uproar that ensued, advisers said, particularly that so many Americans did not trust him, much less trust the oversight provided by the intelligence court and Congress. As more secrets spilled out, though, aides said even Mr. Obama was chagrined. They said he was exercised to learn that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was being tapped.
This fits with earlier claims we’ve heard about how President Obama keeps finding out about what the NSA is doing from the Snowden leaks, and then having to go ask the NSA what’s really going on. The idea that the President didn’t know that the NSA was tracking the phone of the leader of one of our largest allies suggests a complete disinterest and hands off approach to the surveillance state — which is another recipe for allowing widespread abuses.
Similarly, as we were among the first to point out, the FISC ruling that noted the NSA had abused section 215 of the PATRIOT Act for years, came just weeks after President Obama took power. He claims that as he studied the programs, he found that they were important and vital and weren’t being abused. Yet, just weeks after he became President the court in charge of oversight found exactly the opposite. You’d think that if he were actually concerned about the surveillance state, he would have taken an interest. But he didn’t:
‘But when Mr. Obama was briefed, the case did not stir consternation. The president’s team instructed the Justice Department to fix the problem, but ‘this was not a central concern and he was very quick in knowing how to deal with it,’ said a former administration official.’
Because even if the program wasn’t in line, it’s okay, because, hey, the President is a ‘trustworthy guy’. And that’s exactly how you end up with an abused and overreaching surveillance state. I’m sure that the President believes he is a trustworthy guy. And there’s plenty of truth to that old line that ‘we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions.’ He may have the best of intentions, but when you’re in charge of the most powerful government in the world, being a ‘trustworthy guy’ doesn’t cut it.
The corruption of power is too clear and too easy. There needs to be real and significant controls, and not just because you think you won’t abuse the system — or because the guys before or after you might. There needs to be real and serious controls because the natural direction of a surveillance state is to abuse civil liberties, whether intended or not.
The president’s statements when he was a Senator may have just been political posturing. But now he’s President and all he’s done has shown that he doesn’t understand how a true leader handles such situations. Instead, he’s succumbed to the corruption of power.
This article originally appeared here on Techdirt.com.
Mike Masnick is an American editor and entrepreneur. He is the CEO and founder of Techdirt, a weblog that focuses on technology news and tech-related issues. Masnick is also the founder and CEO of the company Floor64 and a contributor at BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange.