Sunday, November 3, 2013

NSA gets a leash

President Obama has been slow to move in countering the excesses of his predecessors. Part of his reluctance derives from the institutional nature of government. Presidents come and go, but the bureaucracy stays forever.

Whistleblower William Binney revealed in 2007 that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on every single data transmission in the US as well as all foreign transmissions that reached the US. No one cared. Binney was neither arrested nor charged with leaking classified information.

Obama took office in 2009. He didn't care to oppose NSA, either. The new president had plenty of reasons for his reluctance. NSA is a huge organization. The Sunday Times reports that NSA's HQ in Maryland
contains almost 70 miles of roads, 1,300 buildings, each identified by a number, and 18,000 parking spaces as well as a shopping centre, golf courses, chain restaurants and every other accoutrement of Anywhere, USA.
NSA has other facilities around the world, including the Utah Data Center where it stores all data collected from US electronic signal monitoring. NSA spent $1.5-$2 billion to construct this facility.

Reforming an agency that large would meet strong resistance both from within the organization and from its supporters, like Orrin Hatch, Senator from Utah at that time. Conservative politicians and media would have accused Obama of being soft on terrorism, although none of them know much about what NSA does or whether it is effective. William Binney claimed that the multi-billion-dollar Utah Data Center was useless because NSA lacked the ability to interpret its data in a timely manner.

But last week NSA lost its mojo. Politicians from countries around the world began complaining about being bugged by NSA. Among those complaining loudest was Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and one of our most important allies. Spokesmen for the Obama administration, including the president himself, fell all over each other claiming that they never eavesdropped on anyone and that they would never do it again. They thus began making the reforms that NSA has needed all along.

The incident and its aftermath reveal a great deal about Obama and his administration. Republicans have been right to fear the president and oppose his every move. Obama plans to do nothing that Republicans can legitimately oppose--until the moment that they can't oppose it any longer.

This is known in the martial arts as the No-Fight style. You refuse to fight your opponent and let him exhaust himself by attacking you. When an opening appears, you attack. By this time, your opponent has not got the strength to resist you.

Obama's strategy goes beyond temporary measures, however. He is clearly planning to leave an administration that will not embarrass a Democratic candidate for President. George W. Bush left so much broken crockery around the world--in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on Wall Street--that his party had little chance of retaining the presidency. Obama, by contrast, is quietly cleaning up messes and refusing to become embroiled in bureaucratic struggles which he cannot win.

The next president will be a Democrat and will be able to continue the progressive agenda modestly begun by Obama.

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