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Obama's Unplanned NSA Discussion

President Obama listens to French President Francois Hollande during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday.
Evan Vucci
/
AP
President Obama listens to French President Francois Hollande during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday.

You have to wonder if President Obama ever thought, when he first ran for the White House, that he would need to defend himself from accusations his presidency would be a mere extension of his Republican predecessor.

But there he was with journalist having to explain why his approach to national security wasn't really like that of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The main reason Obama is no repeat of that previous administration? He pointed to his championing of strong checks and balances on federal government surveillance (his strong suggestion was that his immediate predecessors didn't).

Further, he seeks a "national conversation" about data-gathering by the government and other entities. Again, the implication there was that any broad debate during the Bush-Cheney years about surveillance was something the prior administration was only brought to while kicking and screaming.

From the reasonable, matter-of-fact way the president put it, you would have thought that such a discussion had been part of Obama's plan for his second term all along. But, of course, it wasn't.

The Obama administration didn't exactly initiate this discussion. Instead, it was thrust upon him. Indeed, whether you view Edward Snowden, the leaker of the NSA surveillance programs, as a hero or traitor, he's likely the only reason Obama is now forced to call for such a discussion about NSA surveillance.

Something similar happened with the U.S. drone program that targets terrorist suspects. Once controversial details leaked out about the president's expansion from the Bush era of the unmanned aerial vehicle program, Obama called for another national discussion. In his National Defense University speech, Obama said there was a "larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy."

Obama's appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, as well as his calls for Americans to discuss what they're willing to abide for national security, also comes at a time when the president's once durable j ob approval ratings have fallen. Some polls suggest an erosion even among Democrats. The NSA revelations as well as the IRS controversy have clearly taken their toll.

Hence the president's attempt to convince Americans that much of what they've heard about the NSA's activities has been flat out wrong and that the American people have no greater defender of their civil liberties than him.

"My job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life which includes our privacy," Obama told Rose. "And so every program that we engage in, what I've said is, 'Let's examine and make sure that we're making the right tradeoffs.' "

The need to openly talk about national security issues he would prefer not to is just one more area where Obama has more in common with the Bush administration than he apparently wants to admit publicly.

But it's not just the Bush-Cheney administration Obama shares this with, but many predecessors.

Presidents often see national security as requiring aggressive actions — frequently at odds with civil liberties — which they, of course, would rather not discuss openly.

Once leaks force a public debate, presidents are compelled to speak to the nation's concerns and sometimes to the global public beyond the U.S. But it certainly isn't part of their plan.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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  • Obama told PBS' Charlie Rose that he rejected comparisons to the Bush-Cheney administration, saying he had added safeguards to protect the privacy of Americans.
  • Administration officials defended the government's surveillance programs before the the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, saying they believe the U.S. has struck the right balance between security and privacy. Officials also revealed they had thwarted more than 50 terror plots.
  • The man who leaked secret National Security Agency documents, Edward Snowden, defended his decision to reveal details of U.S. surveillance programs in a web chat on Monday. Snowden said he's still in Hong Kong and claims he wouldn't get a fair trial in the U.S. He also said he has not been in contact with the Chinese government and that there are more disclosures to come.
  • President Obama says federal judges have been "overseeing" the recently exposed government surveillance programs. But few, if any, experts in the Bush or Obama administrations believe that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has the enforcement teeth it once had.