The Absent Commander in Chief
The Wall Street Journal
June 17, 2013
President Obama’s admirers — who include most of the press corps, the Nobel committee and President Obama — believe above all in the power of his oratory: A “major speech,” in Philadelphia, Tucson or Cairo, can always calm troubled political waters. This makes the silence of this wordiest of Presidents all the more unusual and dangerous amid the political uproar over National Security Agency anti-terror surveillance. It makes the silence of this wordiest of Presidents all the more unusual and dangerous amid the political uproar over National Security Agency anti-terror surveillance.
In the 11 days since the story broke, Mr. Obama has offered only one brief and elliptical defense of the NSA programs. “I welcome this debate,” he said, adding that,that, “We’ll have a chance to talk further during the course of the next couple days.”
Mr. Obama went on to spend the next couple days avoiding the debate he said he welcomed. Between fund-raising appearances in Miami Beach and Santa Monica, he squeezed in an event welcoming the women’s professional basketball championship team to the White House, an Ed Markey for Senate rally in Boston, and a celebration for gay pride month. The core national security obligations of the Presidency? Nada.
With Mr. Obama’s face on the surveillance milk carton, the case for data-mining and digital eavesdropping has fallen to NSA chief Keith Alexander and the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper continued his pattern of doing more harm than good with his line about answering congressional questions in “the most truthful or least most untruthful manner,” which helps to explain why people are skeptical of U.S. spooks.
Even an effort by Mr. Obama to lead from behind would be better than this abdication. The President’s mistake seems to be a combination of moral afflatus—how could anyone possibly imagine that he would abuse government power—and treating the current furor as a law school seminar? The political danger is a lot greater than that. A real and growing risk is that Congress will move in a way that limits the war powers of the Commander in Chief and endangers national security.
To take one example, support seems to be growing for Senate legislation from Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Republican Mike Lee of Utah that would require the declassification of certain legal opinions from the oversight court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. This infringes on executive power because the President has traditionally defined what is secret, especially in times of war.
White House attorneys recently compounded the damage in a separate lawsuit to unseal those decisions, claiming in front of the FISA court that the FISA court itself had mandated their secrecy. The court ruled instead, and rightly so, that it is “fundamentally the Executive Branch’s responsibility to safeguard sensitive national security information.”
This rebuke harmed the Administration’s credibility with the judges who approve surveillance applications, and it suggested that the Administration lacks the courage of its own security convictions. When in trouble, this crowd always blames someone else.
If Mr. Obama wants to maintain public support for the U.S. anti-terror architecture he inherited and has robustly used, he is going to have to publicly defend it in the context of American interests and values. Without such a defense, the political vacuum will be filled by speculation and demagoguery as it has been for nearly two weeks.
As a Senator, Mr. Obama might have joined the demagogues. Yet as President he has largely erred on the side of keeping the country safe, which confirms the truism that the world looks different from the Oval Office than from an Iowa fairground. He has bombed terrorists to death by the hundreds even as his rhetoric continues to suggest that he has saved the nation from George W. Bush’s anti-terror tyranny. This contradiction between his talk and action is now undermining support for Mr. Obama’s powers.
All of this follows an unfortunate national-security pattern: Mr. Obama ramped up the Afghan campaign while undercutting the counter-insurgency strategy from the start, and he barely spoke of it again except to trumpet withdrawal. He threw in with the Europe-led Libya coalition at the last second, only to abdicate once Gaddafi fell and to the point that a U.S. Ambassador was murdered without consequence.
Last month he all but declared the war on terror wrapped up. And then last Thursday he left the explanation for his abrupt change of heart to (lightly) arm the Syrian rebels to his deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Obama has been lucky that his predecessors, including Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Reagan and George W. Bush, protected the wartime powers of the Presidency. This has provided him with the tools to protect Americans from the deadly combination of Islamist fanaticism and modern technology. He now has an obligation to explain and defend those tools, lest he leave America more vulnerable and the Presidency weaker than he found them.
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