Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why is Obama Defending the NSA?

As best I can tell, Obama's proposed reforms to current security practices are mostly window dressing. He has said nothing at all about the NSA's practice of deliberately sabotaging widely used encryption software, its massive interception of text messages, or most of the rest of what it is doing and, arguably, should not be. His main proposal is to maintain a pen register on the entire U.S. population—a record of what number called what number when—while moving it one step further from direct control by the NSA.

This raises an obvious question: why? I can see three plausible answers. Starting with the one most favorable to Obama and ending with the one least favorable:

1. He really believes that the activities of the NSA help protect America from terrorists and that any significant restriction would reduce its ability to do so.

2. He believes that restricting the NSA will make him and his party appear weak on national security issues, losing him votes on the political center, and that the people who would approve of his doing so are for the most part already Democrats.

3. He regards the ability of the government to collect massive amounts of information on ordinary citizens as potentially useful for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism—in the extreme, as a way of making it possible to blackmail politicians into supporting his policies or damage political opponents by leaking information about their sexual or other misdeeds to friendly media. In a less extreme version, as a way of identifying and prosecuting people who leak information unfavorable to his administration.

If I had to guess, my guess would be number 2, but I am not willing to rule out either of the other alternatives.


jdgalt said...

I can't possibly believe #1; even though Obama makes Jimmy Carter look like a genius on foreign policy, he certainly knows better than that.

#2 and #3, or some combination, are plausible...

But I believe we should at least consider a fourth possibility:

4. A group of insiders in the military/intelligence apparatus (called by some the "secret government") are really running things, and can and do bully every president into leaving them in charge.

This is the only theory I've run across which is consistent with Obama having sincerely meant his pre-election promises to close Guantanamo and make his administration more transparent than the one before.

Anonymous said...

"losing him votes on the political center"

Isn't there a two term limit? Perhaps you mean votes from Congressmen &c. on proposed legislation of his. Well he hasn't been able to push through anything remotely approaching what his initial goals were anyway, to my knowledge. What political capital does he actually command that he's supposed to be defending?

Tibor said...

I wanted to ask the same thing as dgbridger...is it common for US presidents to pursue further career in politics as senators or something once they cannot candidate any more? My impression was that they usually don't in which case I can't see why Obama would care about votes anymore.

Anonymous said...

On the interpretations regarding votes that are obvious to me, a quick Google search for opinion polls turns up an article that weakens the plausibility of both:


Quote regarding the opinions of the American public:

" "a majority of Americans – 56% – say that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and internet data the government is collecting as part of its anti-terrorism efforts." And "an even larger percentage (70%) believes that the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism." Moreover, "63% think the government is also gathering information about the content of communications." That demonstrates a decisive rejection of the US government's three primary defenses of its secret programs: there is adequate oversight; we're not listening to the content of communication; and the spying is only used to Keep You Safe™."

Regarding the opinions of Members of Congress:

"Perhaps more amazingly still, this shift has infected the US Congress. Following up on last week's momentous House vote - in which 55% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans defied the White House and their own leadership to vote for the Amash/Conyers amendment to ban the NSA's bulk phone records collection program - the New York Times has an article this morning which it summarizes on its front page this way:
nyt nsa

The article describes how opposition to the NSA, which the paper says was recently confined to the Congressional "fringes", has now "built a momentum that even critics say may be unstoppable, drawing support from Republican and Democratic leaders, attracting moderates in both parties and pulling in some of the most respected voices on national security in the House.""

David Friedman said...

1. Obama cannot run for a third term, but he can, as Bill Clinton did, try to remain politically powerful behind the scenes.

2. Obama is part of various coalitions, most obviously the Democratic party, and has incentives to do things that support their objectives, such as winning the next presidential election and future congressional elections.

3. There is a midterm election coming up. If it gives Republicans majorities in both houses, which now seems possible although perhaps not probable, that makes Obama look very bad and weakens his ability to achieve things during his final two years.

4. It's possible that defending the NSA is politically unwise, but far from clear. To begin with, he can and does pretend to rein it in while actually doing very little. In addition, even if a majority of the voters want it reined in, it matters where that majority is. If most of it is among people who are reliable democratic voters, while the supporters of the NSA are in the center, supporting the NSA could increase votes for Democrats.

Anonymous said...

Fair points. Google turns up a bunch of result for the search "republicans nsa opinion". I'll just quote from one:

"Interestingly, the most intense opposition to the programs comes from the political right. Republicans disapprove of the program by almost a 2 to 1 margin. Independents disapprove, 56 to 34 percent. But 49 percent of Democrats approve of the program, compared with 40 percent who disapprove."

If I'm not misinterpreting what the statistics actually mean, it seems to be the case that opinion polls support your first and second point, insofar as defending the NSA may be politically expedient in terms of maintaining relations with the Democratic party. They don't seem to support your third point, given that Republicans "disapprove of the program by almost a 2 to 1 margin". The remark about Independents (who can perhaps be used as a proxy for the political center) also doesn't seem to support your fourth point.

Another interesting point worth noting is this:
"When the polling organization asked a similar question in 2006, the NSA's program had more support from Republicans than Democrats. Gallup believes the shift "reflects the party of the president under whose watch the programs were carried out at those two points in time." Of course, the programs in question were begun during the Bush administration."

Which seems to suggest that support for the NSA is not a matter of principle but of political conformity. What Democrats believe is apparently a function of what Obama does, rather than vice versa.

TJIC said...

I used to regard comments like John David Galt's as hilariously wacky.

I no longer do.

I would not lay money on a conspiracy behind the scenes that can use secrets to blackmail people into doing their will...but after seeing how Obama won his Senate seat ( sealed divorce records of his rival somehow being leaked ), it's clear that this sort of thing can and does happen.

...and who better to do it than the NSA?

I hate even typing that paragraph, because it makes me sound like a loon, but one adjusts one's priors based on new information.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to link the article I quoted in my previous post. Blogger doesn't seem to possess an 'edit' function, so here it is: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/06/12/poll-republicans-hate-nsa-spying-democrats-are-ambivalent/

bruce said...

America has a very long bipartisan tradition of preferring signals intelligence to the spy-vs-spy humans sneaking around stuff. James Tiptree Jr once described it as 'no more immoral than looking over your fence to count your neighbour's laundry'. The NSA scandals might create some finger-wagging about how gentlemen don't read each other's mail, but does anyone really think they'll do more?

Anonymous said...

It's not mainly about "looking weak on foreign policy". Obama has been in office for the last 5 years, so it's difficult for him to criticize anything the government is doing without looking foolish. It would be easier if this were his first term.

Gordon said...

There are clear differences in viewpoint between Senator Obama and President Obama. Where you sit determines where you stand (to a first order approximation, anyway). A President is very unlikely to weaken the powers of the executive branch without getting some large benefit in return. What would real reform of national security policy actually net him? And what Republican members of the House will step forward and endorse any meaningful reforms he proposes?

The abuse of power by one branch is supposed to be checked by the others. Congress will do nothing in the current political environment, and the Supreme Court rarely restricts the executive branch on matters of foreign policy.

Jon said...

You know who would tend to like the NSA? The richest people in the world who still feel they need more riches. That is, capitalists. The richest people in the world are capitalists, that is people who make the bulk of their money via the ownership claim they hold over the means of production, not via work they do.

So is it really any surprise that politicians tend to have a bias in favor of the NSA that isn't shared by normal people?

OWS is a threat to capitalists, that is, people who make money doing nothing. Sleeping, playing golf, whatever. They're getting all the money. And that money really has to be made by people. People who work and are paid a wage, but the fruits of their labor go partially, in some cases mostly, to that capitalist that is sleeping, golfing, or whatever. In the Ukraine protestors all got a mass text message. "You are engaging in an illegal protest." The threat to the capitalists ability to collect all the money that is produced by workers is organization by those workers. Unions, and mass movements. Democracy. NSA is a tool for preventing that.

There's nothing new here. The government has been trying to repress popular movements forever because they threaten the wealth of the richest capitalists. See "Agents of Repression" by Ward Churchill. Infiltration, spying. MLK Jr was hated not just for his anti war activities, but also his support for unions. Thus he was spied on. The Black Panthers were infiltrated. False flag operations attributed to them so they could be undermined. In some cases they'd just be murdered, like Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by the FBI along with the Chicago police. This is another tool of preventing popular movements that threaten capitalists.

RJM said...

@David: Let me call your #1 the ''idealistic'' interpretation - an idealist believes that politicians do what they think is best for the nation.

Your #2 is the ''democratic'' interpretation. It's based on the fact that real democracy results in actions that are not necessarily good for the nation but still good for some subset of people (e.g. rulers).

Your #3 goes little bit in the direction of ''conspiracy'', where politicians have this evil side and conspire systematically against the people. Usually this involves some sort of deals that are hidden from the public, yet very important in the realm of political power (including blackmailing and exchange of secrets).

John David Galt's 4. qualifies as category #3 as well.

My intention is not to ridicule these three possibilities. I'd say all three determine actions of politicians to some degree.

However, there is an interpretation of the action's of politicians that lies a little bit orthogonal.
What if Obama bought into some sort of state-religion comparable to how the pope bought into the Catholic Church.

It's an old question whether or not priests actually believe their own teachings. That's especially hard to believe, when their teachings involve justification of cruelty, violence, power, abuse ... and usually a line is drawn like:
"Oh, this priest really tried to help people. It's not his fault that things went bad. The problem is the corrupt church!" vs. "Oh this guy is just evil. Judging by his deeds, he cannot possibly have had a clean conscience."

Well, I think in reality there are no such evil persons. Most people consider themselves good - even Mao "reflected" a lot about what's best for the people, before his reforms caused mass starvation. And it's rather the sum of all the idealistic people who build something big and monstrous like the Catholic Church in all its corruption (or the state).

So does Obama believe the NSA serves the interests of the American Nation and the interests of the American people, even if this seems increasingly absurd?
I think, he does! ALL institutions of the American state serve the interests of the people. It's their creed. It's the same level as "without the state, we wouldn't have roads!".

Now the ''democratic'' interpretation: Is it likely that restricting the NSA will benefit him or his peers politically? Not as long as the religious statist beliefs are so prevalent among the voters (this has been elaborated on above already, I see).
Sometimes opinions swap. Like the rise of the Green Party in Germany and more recently Germany's announced exit out of nuclear energy. Sooner or later a politician might arise who benefits from a strong "restrict-the-NSA!" stance. Obama is probably not it. These swaps in religious beliefs come as slow paradigm shifts. They are like schisms and only courageous people with nothing to lose bet on those.

And the conspiracy-interpretation: If it's true, we will probably only know at some point in the future. Like we know today about J. Edgar Hoover's secret files maybe.
My starting hypothesis would be: the NSA is deadly inefficient and of very limited use to individuals who "control" it. I mean, even listening to Angela Merkel's mobile phone calls must be dead boring most of the time. And the moment she says something relevant, it's probably still difficult to make use of that.

Long story short: In my opinion it's mostly #1, where "really believes" means "has bought into the belief that".

RJM said...

For me, the religious analogy sometimes makes assumption in the direction of conspiracy unnecessary. They still might be true, though.