econd-term presidencies have long been susceptible to righteous overreach. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan struggled to deflect the effects of an elaborate arms-for-hostages deal tied to an Iranian regime Washington claimed to revile. Iran would secretly receive weapons in return for help with the release of seven high-profile hostages held in Lebanon by splinter groups sympathetic to Tehran.
The 1986 revelation left the Reagan presidency vulnerable for the first time. The scheme’s mastermind, Colonel Oliver North, told Congress that financial profits from the so-called Iran-Contra project would be earmarked for anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, a pet Reagan cause. Though a report ultimately accused the Reagan Administration of “secrecy, deception and disdain for the law,” the shredding of key documents by complicit White House officials stalled further complications and allowed Reagan to leave office with most of his luster intact.
Bill Clinton also overreached in the mid-1990s, but his indiscretions were personal, not administrative. Yet he also paid a price: Al Gore, his vice president, once seen as a likely successor, was irrevocably compromised, dealing a major blow to his party.
The second-half of the Bush Administration witnessed the sullying of a legacy founded on a hard-line response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. First, Bush miscalculated the threat posed by Hurricane Katrina, seeming aloof as New Orleans drowned. His entitled approach contrasted awkwardly with the reality faced by the storm’s have-nots, a black eye that would refuse to fade.
Two years later, he not only failed to pick up on the potential consequences of Wall’s Street’s downward spiral but also seemed paralyzed to react. Katrina and Wall Street gave ammunition to Democrats seeking a renewed vigor they found in Barack Obama.
Now it’s Obama’s turn to harvest shadows. Reports thateuo the National Security Agency amassed personal data on a massive scale as part of an operation labeled “Prism” egregiously contradict the spirit of a presidency once labeled as dedicated to an openness his predecessor laughed off.
It is Obama’s second strike, after failing to close the Guantanamo prison facility. In both cases, his national security rationale has followed Bush-era strategies and born little resemblance to views he expressed on the 2008 campaign trail.
The so-called “Prism” program is discouraging if predictable. Made uneasy by the prospect of new incidents of domestic terrorism, Obama responded in preventive mastectomy style, by harvesting information and playing the odds that his agencies might deter something big (to then claim media headlines). That “Prism” demanded the collusion of some of the country’s largest online companies makes 20th-century Big Brother into a 21st-century grandfather. The NSA’s server intrusions together with the Guantanamo reversal and Obama’s near-casual response to each is in perfect line with second-term overreach.
While it’s true the web is an unregulated jungle of images and chatter (making it manna to intelligence agencies), post-9/11 Americans have returned to liking their privacy, even if it only exists in the abstract. Richard Nixon lost second-term traction, and ultimately his job, mostly for engineering a blackballing system that manipulated government agencies into obtaining information damaging to Nixon enemies, the so-called “dirty tricks” campaign. That alone was more harmful than the Watergate break-in.
Obama’s “no pain, no gain” defense goes only so far, since it reflects a pattern. It was Obama who in 2011 extended the terms of Patriot Act, a decree generated in a time of extreme national paranoia that placed the United States on a kind of never-ending war footing. Terrorist acts in Europe made the Act, under which “Prism” falls, all the more appealing.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry sought the repeal of the Patriot Act and the placing of terrorism under criminal jurisdiction in an effort to erode the celebrity status of perpetrators. The idea and his campaign went nowhere.
Now, nearly a decade later, Obama labels extreme oversight as an essential “tradeoff,” a thought process he would have abjured in his early political days.
The existence of “Prism” does little more than confirm what was known — that individual privacy is relative in the online age.
More to the point, Obama is now a Patriot Act man to the core, one who explicitly condones the “authority to intercept wire, oral and electronic communications relating to terrorism,” with the definition of terrorism given the widest possible interpretation (the words “surveillance” and “investigation” appear more than 150 times in the Act).
“You can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said in his loose justification of the program, knowing full well the spirit of the problem has little to do with percentages. At issue is the word “inconvenience,” which risks shortchanging the larger peril of being spied on for reasons excused as noble but that over decades become abusively routine.