President Obama’s double-talk is these days competing with the worst days of the Bush Administration. The President had the nerve to complain at a press conference that in releasing details of the NSA’s massive and intrusive spying programme, Edward Snowden merely beat him to the punch.
In that press conference, Obama said, “My preference—and I think the American people’s preference—would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place”.
The obvious problem with the President’s Friday afternoon flight to Fantasyland is that had Snowden not released these documents, there would have been no examination of these laws. There would have been no debate. And the NSA would have pressed ahead with its unlawful activities which, I think most of us can agree, would not have led us to a better place. (It is, in fact, clear that the NSA is going full-steam ahead in any case, and that the national security apparatus is working tirelessly to shut down avenues of scrutiny.)
The history of scrutiny into the NSA’s data collection and spying makes a mockery of the President’s claims. Republicans in Congress egged President Bush on when he engaged in national security overreach. During the first four years of Obama’s presidency, as he expanded those programmes under the radar, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress sat quietly, failing dismally in their oversight responsibilities. Because for oversight to work, it has to involve the conveyance of at least some information into the public eye. Amy Davidson (see link above) pointed out, for example, the absurdity of “oversight” which consists of having “Senators constrained from talking about what they know”, how they know what they know, and why what they know makes all the things that we don’t know okay.
When some members of Congress—most famously Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon—sought to delve a bit deeper into the festering swamp of our national security apparatus, high-ranking officials within that apparatus lied to them. Yes, lied, carefully, calculatedly, and deliberately—rightly assuming that in the normal course of events (i.e. without someone like Edward Snowden changing the course of events) their subversion and treachery would not have been discovered.
How can the kind of oversight the President has trumpeted—defended by some of the Senate’s most odious specimens like Dianne Feinstein—work if a) most of the functionaries charged with providing that oversight refuse to do their job; and b) officials within our ever-more Orwellian and terroristic military-intelligence complex deliberately obstruct the execution of those oversight functions?
The other problem with Obama’s assertion—that he was just about to get around to sorting out all of the problems he and his legal advisors deliberately built into the national security state—is that the President has a track record.
At every turn, his administration has worked to frustrate, obstruct, and attack whistleblowers. His administration has repeatedly seized the opportunity—in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya—to escalate wars which function only to make the United States’ public less secure and protract our involvement in conflicts which serve no imaginable purpose other than the perpetuation of festering, debilitating, and incendiary conflict which enriches and empowers profiteers and fundamentalists of all stripes. In the prosecution of those wars, he has embraced terrorism, whether in the form of extrajudicial killings (most of us call these ‘murders’), bombing campaigns, secret prisons (the most infamous have closed, but others have gone mobile across South Asia and the Horn of Africa), and arrests based not on the rule of law, but rather on the basis of the kind of profiling enabled by the NSA’s data collection.
He has done his best to shield his conduct of his war of terror from scrutiny. He eschewed public debate when it came to expanding the U.S. wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. And he had the temerity to argue that Congress had no business in meddling with his war in Libya because it wasn’t really a war. The tortured chain of illogic that he constructed asserted that a war conducted using drones—which is clearly how many wars will be conducted in the future—was not really a war, because there were no U.S. “boots on the ground”. This troubled progressives, but they managed to persuade themselves that Obama is a sober-minded, responsible individual who would not abuse this aggrandisement of executive power, ignoring both the mounting evidence of our President’s bloodthirsty irresponsibility and the spectre of a George W Bush wielding such self-conferred impunity.
The centralisation of war making power, its insulation from scrutiny, criticism, and debate, conspire to make Obama’s terroristic wars highly personalised. In other words—whether the kill lists (or ‘disposition matrices’ as the White House calls them), the drone strikes, the spying, or the attacks on journalists and whistleblowers—the wars that rage across a dozen fronts, conducted with methods of shocking barbarism and brutality, really are Obama’s Wars in a way that Iraq and Afghanistan never belonged fully to George W Bush.
Bush, after all, was joined by a coalition of the unhinged in waging those wars. He was backed by a cabal of neoconservative ideologues, a collection of Democratic warmongers like Hillary Clinton, and virtually the entire Republican caucus in Congress. Obama could undoubtedly find such allies in Congress and in the right-wing commentariat if he chose. But the rationale, conduct, and deliberations around his personalised style of terror have been so insulated and so well-protected by a quasi-legal curtain that the worst charge we can throw at those outside of his cabinet and inner administration circle is that of dereliction of duty—a serious enough charge when the lives and liberties of people around the globe are at stake.