In his secrecy speech, he deplored East Germany’s “vast, unchecked surveillance” and referred to U.S. government spying on civil-rights leaders and anti-war protesters as “abuse of surveillance.” He even cribbed a line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, saying that “(i)n the long, twilight struggle against communism, we had been reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not be sacrificed at the altar of national security.”
That is the crux of the tension, the peril that in the zeal to protect our rights we undermine them. During the Cold War, this tension flared, with the danger that in opposing Moscow in foreign affairs, the nation faced the hazard of behaving like Soviet Russia in domestic affairs.
The problem is that, in a world where high-tech surveillance is so sophisticated that the instruments of everyday life, such as BlackBerrys and iPhones, are not even permitted in the White House Situation Room, presidents understandably want their intelligence services to know as much as possible. “We were shaken,” the president said of the 2001 terrorist strikes, “by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks — how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places.”
The beginning of understanding the president’s view is to consider how he begins his day: with a security briefing that many days is chilling.
“I was shocked by what I heard in my briefings,” Bush administration attorney general Michael B. Mukasey said in a telephone conversation the other day. “You find out on a comprehensive basis the threats out there. When you see what’s been stopped, you realize what would have happened if those threats weren’t stopped — and you realize who would be blamed. There are people in the world who, if they had ‘to-do’ lists on their refrigerators, the list would consist of one entry: ‘get the United States.’”
That clearly has affected the president deeply.
Obama’s problem is that his conviction that he has information others don’t — a fact that is incontestable — makes for a president who seems remote and unaccountable. That may be an inevitable characteristic of the modern presidency, but so, too, is distrust and skepticism of the modern presidency.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.