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The New York Times’ Peter Baker has a lead story detailing “Obama’s Path from Critic to Overseer of Spying.” Not to be too cynical about Baker’s reporting since it probably does basically reflect the road the president has taken since moving from the Senate to, as the story reports, sitting behind the president’s desk every morning reading the daily intelligence accounts about this or that terrorist entity out to kill large numbers of Americans. That said, this is the kind of background story that often appears right before a president gives a major address in order to help spin follow-on accounts of the speech in a way favorable to the president. And we know the president will be delivering such an address tomorrow at the Justice Department laying out the changes he would make to NSA’s surveillance programs in the wake of the Snowden leaks and his own presidential panel’s set of recommendations.
Now, reading the tea leaves here, it appears the proposed changes the president will offer up will be modest in nature, leaving most if not all of the metadata collection program intact. This will, of course, disappoint his liberal base which, despite the fact that there’s been no evidence that NSA was abusing its collection authorities to undermine Americans’ privacy, has been screaming bloody murder about the specter of Big Brother. A little over a week ago, the betting was that the president would indeed follow his panel’s many (misguided) recommendations and significantly curtail NSA’s collection efforts.
If the New York Times story is to believed, the president has backed away from major changes based on his day-to-day experience and responsibility for protecting the nation. Undoubtedly, there is some truth here. However, one also suspects that the recent publication of former Defense Secretary Robert Gate’s book Duty has also played something of a role in how the president is now thinking about responding to the panel and the Snowden leaks. Gates’ Duty leaves readers with the impression that this White House is more attune to the politics of national security than national security—a damning accusation for any commander-in-chief. It’s hard to believe that the president would want to allow this impression to be reinforced by now undermining a key part of the intelligence community effort by allowing the pseudo-hysteria of civil libertarians of the left and the right to drive his decisions.
Of course, all of this is conjecture at this point. But, if I had to bet, this president will decide that “less is more” when it comes to proposed changes for reasons high and low.
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