Obama's Deepening National Security Dilemmas

Boxed in by security threats and politics, Obama fights on

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Pete Souza / The White House

It wasn't so long ago that barack Obama found widespread government snooping disturbing. In 2007, then Senator Obama co-sponsored a bill that would have reined in government surveillance programs by limiting the bulk collection of U.S. telephone records with a requirement for narrower and better-justified data searches. When the House of Representatives considered a similar amendment in late July, however, Obama's White House succeeded in killing it.

Now Obama is playing the role of reformer. Edward Snowden has escaped his Moscow-airport purgatory and apparently stopped letting new details trickle out about the National Security Agency's activities. But after Congress returns from its summer recess next month, it will again tackle the question of how far government should go in the fight against terrorists. Speaking to reporters on Aug. 9 before starting his own vacation, Obama said he welcomes congressional action.

That doesn't mean the NSA's sweeping data-collection powers are likely to change much. Once again, when it comes to fighting terrorism, Obama has found himself stuck with policies he previously decried but that he now can't--or won't--get rid of.

Congress will take some kind of action on the NSA surveillance programs this fall. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein has announced hearings on the NSA's data collection, and Senators and staff are preparing legislation. Feinstein's ideas are modest, however: they include requiring the annual release of the number of times the government searched the NSA's database of telephone records and reducing the time that phone records are held from five years to two or three years. The Republican-led House may be less amenable to civil-liberties concerns. A liberal-libertarian alliance featuring the likes of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul might stage a revolt, but leaders in Congress are more focused on appeasing public outrage than imposing limits on NSA spying. "We are of the mind that these programs are effective and lawful and ought to continue--but in a way that has greater support from the public," says one congressional staffer.

That echoes the tone the President struck in his Aug. 9 news conference, at which he proposed his own set of rather modest reforms in the name of sustaining the surveillance programs. Obama summed up his goal perhaps too neatly when he said, "The question is, How do I make the American people more comfortable?" It was a far cry from the operational limits Obama supported as a Senator.

Obama has jawboned Americans on other counterterrorism programs recently too. In late May he delivered a long speech in which he announced stricter rules governing drone strikes and vowed to close Guantánamo Bay. "This war, like all wars, must end," Obama said then. But this month's Yemen-based al-Qaeda terrorism alert, coupled with the stinging memory of last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, underscores how little progress Obama has made in curtailing his counterterrorism programs. Closing Gitmo, for instance, requires transferring dozens of Yemeni detainees, but after a 2009 al-Qaeda plot that originated in Yemen, the process was halted and is not likely to commence anytime soon. And after a lull in drone activity over Yemen, the U.S. has conducted at least nine strikes there since late July.

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