Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Obama, Snowden and the Press

I have long been, and continue to be, a strong supporter of Barack Obama.  Evidence of that can be found in my posts going back to early 2007, my contributions to his two campaigns and a my share of door knocking here in this now almost completely "red" state.  Like many others, I was thrilled by yesterdays announcement that he would employ executive powers to move aggressively forward on climate change.  It is in that context that I find myself both mystified and troubled by the Administration's record on matters of privacy, its aggressive pursuit of whistle blowers and its often-hostile relations with the press.  All of that is evident in the Snowden Affair.

During the 2008 campaign the press often referred to the candidate as "no drama Obama", a branding attributed to Air Force General Tony McPeak.  Unlike many contenders for the highest office in the land, this man was cool and controlled.  If there were tensions within, they were subdued by a leader who literally didn't tolerate what had become a norm in the Clinton and then the McCain campaigns.  Whether or not the no drama moniker fits, my own sense is that Obama is at the core an extremely private person.  That explains his still small circle of advisors, his lack of interest in "schmoozing" with Hill folk and a reluctance to engage often in one-on-ones with the press.  Aside from several first term appearances on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft, it was only last week (almost five years in) that he agreed to an extended sit down with Charlie Rose.

And it is Obama's own premium on privacy that makes his stance on surveillance so very mystifying.  Not merely has the President carried forward a Bush/Cheney initiated program, he has both embraced and, if anything, broadened it.  Doing so has largely inoculated him from criticism on the right, but it has infuriated many of his natural supporters in the middle and left.  Even those who may not find it infuriating, still see it as deeply disheartening, further evidence of the right's huge influence on America's present.  Democrats have long been at a disadvantage on matters of national security and now seem to be performing cartwheels to prove that "it just ain't so".  It's time for them to stop proving themselves.  We want to be judged by the values we protect, not the corners we cut in the name of maintaining security.

If keeping track of what telephone numbers we're dialing is deeply disturbing, equally so is even the slightest intrusion on press freedom.  In his Times piece discussing NBC's David Gregory's controversial questioning of The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, David Carr writes:
"If you add up the pulling of news organization phone records (The Associated Press), the tracking of individual reporters (Fox News), and the effort by the current administration to go after sources (seven instances and counting in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the news media), suggesting that there is a war on the press is less hyperbole than simple math. ... For the time being, it is us (the press) versus them (federal officials)..."
The issue here is not whether the press and government at times (or often) find themselves adversaries — that's what a free press is all about — but if the government is using its muscle to prevent reporters from doing their job.  There is much to criticize about today's media, many reasons for us to have lost confidence in them as independent observers.  That said, we all have a big stake in protecting their integrity, something that impacts directly and deeply on our own.  This includes their right and need to protect sources. 

If mystified by Obama's stand on privacy, I'm totally at sea about the current travels of Edward Snowden.  In my first post on this subject, I called him a hero.  His decision to leak information about how our government is intruding itself on our privacy in the name of national security is potentially a catalyst a long overdue national discussion.  In the face of others silence, that was heroic.  My fear now is that Snowden's behavior since this story broke may be undermining the very discussion that I had expected would ensue and that President Obama has endorsed.  The behavior of the messenger (the hero) may well get in the way.

Clearly Snowden has the right to protect himself from prosecution.  The usual course for doing so is to engage legal counsel.  Given his many supporters, getting a first class lawyer and the necessary funding for a defense would hardly seem a problem.  But Snowden, unlike other whistle blowers, chose to leave the country.  That's understandable.  That he chose China and now Russia as havens, albeit temporary, is to say the least curious.  Leaving aside, that these were our primary adversaries during the Cold War, neither country can be described as a protector of either citizen privacy or of a free press.  If American can be faulted in this regard, these countries are monsters in comparison.  Dick Cheney's suggestion that Snowden might be a spy may read ludicrous, but connecting those dots would make for an easy and credible spy novel.  We know little about the former CIA employee, but his travel itinerary certainly isn't enhancing his credibility.

None of us have any control over Mr. Snowden or know what his next steps will be.  The secrets he laid bare are claimed to have done "irreversible and significant damage" to the nation.  Maybe so, but at this point we don't know that to be the case.  The idea that our adversaries don't know that technology is being employed as a surveillance tool is hard to believe.  We have no control over the whistle blower or over what the government will say to defend its program or do to prosecute him.  What we can control, or at least influence, is the critical conversation about privacy and the limits of government intrusion.  We can't allow Snowden's odyssey to distract us.  That will be hard at a time when we as Americans seem to prefer drama to substance.  If the press really wants to protect their own independence and freedom, here's a chance for them to show it by keeping their eye and ours on the ball.  This time around they clearly have a vested and immediate interest in substance, in adopting the no drama ways of the President whom they and we have been calling to task.

Comments on the Supreme Court's three momentous decisions will follow soon.

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