Jewish Journal

Clarity and Courage

by  David A. Lehrer

January 20, 2014 | 3:45 pm


Last Friday was a day for clarity---an issue that has dominated the nation’s political discourse for the past few months and been the subject of vigorous debate was illuminated and clarified as it hasn’t been before. President Obama delivered his much anticipated speech on the National Security Agency and its collection of data from phone call records, etc.---it was a gem.

In a comprehensive analysis, the president made a compelling case for the NSA and its sister agencies to continue  to gather the data and to impose some limited procedures to avoid potential abuse. It was, to this observer, a brilliant and courageous speech. Obama took a principled stand---committing to dealing with the reality of the world as it is---not as we would like it to be. In the process the president angered a good part of his base (to say nothing of the Rand Paul inspired “libertarian” and isolationist right) that has been whipped into a frenzy in opposition to “government snooping.”

Ever since the Snowden revelations,  the media has been more than happy to fill countless hours of air time with hyperbolic descriptions of what they allege the government does and its “intrusiveness.” The absence of brave voices to counter the Snowden allegations only stoked the intensity of the “outrage” and the ratings potential of the subject.

It took some political courage for the president to not cave to the widespread  consensus that the government was listening to our phone calls and reading our emails and generally violating our Constitutionally protected rights. But confront the myths and the hyperbole Obama did,

…nothing in that initial review [early in his administration Obama had ordered a review of all the government’s surveillance programs], and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens….they consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They are not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails. When mistakes are made---which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise---they correct those mistakes.

Obama wisely warned the public that our “intelligence services serve a vital role in confronting our enemies and threats….we cannot unilaterally disarm [them].” He admitted that the view from the Oval Office, where the security of the free world is on your shoulders, imposes different burdens and responsibilities than those borne by the folks who offer their facile opinions and threats.

Despite his conclusions about the government’s  lack of over-reaching, and in recognition of the need to insure that abuses don’t occur in the future, he announced some reforms that will, in relatively minor ways, impinge on the intelligence community. To The New York Times the changes “don’t go nearly far enough,” to the Wall Street Journal the proposed reforms go too far because they have been “needlessly politicized,” the Los Angeles Times concluded that the reforms must “restore the proper balance between security and privacy,” implying that balance is somewhat out of kilter today.

The criticisms from the left, the right and the middle suggest that the president may have struck the right balance and, by honest discussion, begun to counter the exaggerations and nonsense that have dominated the intelligence debate for much of the past year. He refused to be whipsawed into dangerous moves by those who, in the president’s words, are ready “to assume the worst motives by our government.”

The political risks of the president’s principled position cannot be overstated. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported that California Senator Diane Feinstein’s popularity in the state has dipped to its lowest level in twenty years---in large measure because of her support for our intelligence agencies in her capacity as chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee. She has forcefully and repeatedly taken stands that defend the methods of the intelligence agencies, knowing that they are essential to our safety and that the risk of dismantling their work is dangerous. “Supposing the program is knocked out and God forbid, a year down the pike something happens?” she has observed.

She has seen the data that the president has seen and is unequivocal in supporting the NSA’s work  and its sister agencies work and methods.

Bravo to the courage of President Obama and Senator Feinstein—both of whom have put our nation’s security above the vagaries of polls, pundits and public whim.

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