THE BLOG
01/10/2014 09:32 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Why Hasn't Obama Reined in NSA?

After the 2008 election, Barack Obama supporters had high expectations for his national-security policy. We thought he'd end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and open talks with Iran. We expected he would close down Guantanamo and end the National Security Agency's (NSA) domestic surveillance program that collects Americans' phone and email data. He's accomplished some of these objectives but he hasn't reined in the NSA. Why not?

Writing in The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza observed that before becoming president, Obama was inconsistent on national security policy and the NSA. "In 2003, as a Senate candidate, he called the Patriot Act 'shoddy and dangerous.' And at the 2004 Democratic Convention... he took aim at the 'library records' provision of the law." Nonetheless, in in 2006 Obama voted for a renewal of the Patriot Act.

As a presidential candidate, Obama's attitude appeared to shift. In 2007 Obama criticized Bush, "This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance civil liberties. It is not. There are no shortcuts to protecting America." In an August 2007, campaign speech Obama criticized, "unchecked presidential power" and vowed a change in national security policy: "that means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens, no more national-security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime... [and] no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient."

Nonetheless, Obama's presidential record has been disappointing. Lizza noted:

It is evident from the Snowden leaks that Obama inherited [from George Bush] a regime of dragnet surveillance that often operated outside the law and raised serious constitutional questions. Instead of shutting down or scaling back the programs, Obama has worked to bring them into narrow compliance with rules--set forth by a court that operates in secret--that often contradict the views on surveillance that he strongly expressed when he was a senator and a Presidential candidate.

A recent New York Times editorial noted:

■ The N.S.A. broke federal privacy laws, or exceeded its authority, thousands of times per year, according to the agency's own internal auditor.
■ The agency broke into the communications links of major data centers around the world, allowing it to spy on hundreds of millions of user accounts and infuriating the Internet companies that own the centers.
■ The N.S.A. systematically undermined the basic encryption systems of the Internet, making it impossible to know if sensitive banking or medical data is truly private, damaging businesses that depended on this trust.

There are three explanations for the president's weak NSA policy.

1. Obama decided not to expend political capital changing it. Given the economic problems he inherited from George Bush, plus the difficulty of working with a divided Congress, Obama may have decided it was not worth the effort to rein in the NSA. That's been true of national security in general. Obama had increased defense spending, expanded the national-security state, and maintained the hundreds of US military bases that dot the globe. Obama tried to shut down Guantanamo but was thwarted by Congress.

2. Since becoming President, Obama has been in a national security bubble. Writing in the New York Times, Peter Baker reported that "the evening before he was sworn into office, Barack Obama [was informed] of a major terrorist plot to attack his inauguration." (This turned out to be a false alarm.) In December of 2009, the President was shaken by the failed attack of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who tried to detonate an underwear bomb as his plane landed in Detroit.

Over the past five years, the intelligence community has alerted Obama to dozens of potential attacks. That's affected him. This past June Obama defended NSA surveillance, saying, "We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information." (Pro Publica reports that the NSA has provided specifics on only four of these cases and there is little support for the president's contention that NSA surveillance actually "averted" these threats.)

3. The National Security State is too powerful to change. The president may have decided that it was impossible to make major changes to NSA, and the gargantuan national-security state, so he opted to "bring them into narrow compliance with rules." Obama inherited a pit bull and decided to handle it with extreme care.

Both the New York Times and Ryan Lizza reported that James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence who oversees NSA, lied to Congress, in March, when he denied that NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans. It wasn't the first time the national-security state deceived us. Their litany of falsehoods and screw-ups stretches from Pearl Harbor through the Vietnam War to the 9/11 attacks and the decision to invade Iraq.

We may never know why President Obama has continued the Bush-era domestic surveillance programs. Whatever his reasoning, it's time for him to rein in the NSA.