Giving Obama the benefit of the doubt
by Peter W. Johnson
During the 2008 Democratic primary I was immediately impressed with then, Senator—Barack Obama. When the field of candidates was asked if they would support a temporary moratorium on the gasoline tax, they all eagerly concurred. However, although knowing full well that agreeing would ensure him many votes, Obama decided to take the path less chosen anyway and stated that such a tactic had already been tried in Illinois but with no good effect. I saw his willingness to differ, as a sign that perhaps he represented a new kind of politician—one that actually dared to express his genuine opinions — not just those that were politically convenient — an unusually rare commodity seldom found in any politician or in any primary contest.
In one of his earliest press conferences, Obama answered a question that he had seemed evasive about days earlier. When asked why he withheld his opinion for so long, the President said, as a matter of fact, that he “wanted to be sure he knew what he was talking about.” So here again was a rare admission in Presidential politics—the idea that uncertainty does not imply weakness, but rather may motivate a genuine examination of the issues! This was something I could not envision GW, or any other President openly admitting to.
Most recently, when trying to explain the atmosphere of gridlock in Congress, the President explained how, all too often, political games and brinksmanship are used as strategies to avoid open minded discussions, but he immediately added that Democrats also share some blame in that regard. Here again was a statement I would never expect Bush, Reagan, or even Clinton to openly admit. And, it is the presence of statements like these, which affirm my belief that Obama is identifiable by his content of character, not just his race, religion, or political ideas.
But the reason I am trying to convey the exceptional nature of the President as evidenced by these personal perceptions of mine, is to lay a foundation, or create a background, on which to contrast Obama’s apparent character with the accusations now implicating his secretive administration, as being contrary to his campaign promises.
There is an amazing arsenal of lies and misinformation aimed directly at the President. So it’s not so unbelievable that he has actually been more determined to spread his own narrative — with the press sometimes being at odds with this endeavor. And the Press has often been unknowingly complicit in spreading unfair and unfounded accusations against his Administration. In fact, often the media has seemed to enable the President’s critics by making mountains out of molehills, and eagerly gobbling up any red meat thrown to them by partisan commentators and conservative news outlets like Fox News. So, whenever the President hesitates even in the slightest, or shows the smallest sign of indecision and/or intellectual inconsistency, even the mainstream media, cannot seem to avoid magnifying his minor infractions as if they represented major scandals.
I have often visited the website of a former journalist who now runs an internet blog concerning the deceptive nature of propaganda and how it shapes our opinions—(the Propaganda Professor). This journalist publishes various articles concerning the attempts of talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, and campaign strategists like Karl Rove, as well as prominent politicians, as they to shape our thinking, in regards to NSA “spying,” or any other allegations, that unfairly “target” our privacy or violate our 4th Amendment rights in any possible way. But, the Propaganda Professor (POP) points out that 2.4 billion calls are made by Americans each day, and, if each of these calls lasts only one minute, and if the 200,000 intelligence agents from 16 different US intelligence agencies were all to snoop into these calls, (in reality very few of them do), each one of them would have to monitor 200 hours of chatter each day in order to examine them all! Even if the police and all our federal agencies were included in performing this herculean task, each of them would still have to listen to as many as 40 hours of phone calls each day to screen them all!
So right here we have revealed the most crucial and necessary reasons for the NSA’s dependence on metadata mining techniques which enable them to sift through a mountainous haystack of chatter, in order to find the few needles which may honestly represent serious threats to our security.
The process is basically a matter of elimination, in which, for example, agents may first listen for references to Al-Qaeda among the chatter, and then include that data while narrowing the search to one that isolates words like “terrorism, Muslim, or Jihadists.” Eventually the range of possible responses is narrowed to a manageable slice of data that may really represent a cause to be concerned, and, after detecting patterns that may link certain suspicious calls with known members of Al-Qaeda, it is only then that any of our phone calls, emails, or text messages becomes important to the NSA.
Not only are they NOT interested in the untold billions of other calls, emails or text messages, that cannot possibly be monitored completely—only when certain phone calls are actually flagged as indications of possible terrorist plots, and examined on the basis of uncovering reasonable suspicions, does the government then have the right to request permission from FISA, or, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to directly examine such calls made to suspicious contacts outside of the United States. Senators like Lindsey Graham have stated that if such metadata mining had been used prior to 911 they would have thwarted the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the attempted use of United flight 93 as a weapon of mass destruction, since at least one of the 19 hijackers was in telephone contact with a known terrorist in the middle east.
Perhaps among the previously “secret” activities of the FISA court, the most controversial include, its approval rate for the cases it reviews, at 99%, thus warranting the natural criticism that it is nothing more than a Kangaroo Court created to support the Government’s own suspicions. But FISA court President, Reggie B. Walton wrote a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy claiming that these statistics represent only the number of FINAL applications that are accepted by the Court. Many of these applications are altered or even withheld from final submission because of prior knowledge that a judge would not accept them. And, although the percentage of denials only amounts to 0.03% or only 34, 000 denials in the 35 years of the Courts existence, none-the-less this relatively small number indicates that the FISA court is not always a rubber stamp for the government’s opinions.
However, perhaps an even more disturbing criticism lies in the very makeup of the Court itself.
This includes the fact that, cases involving the possibility of terrorist activities may need to be presented in the Court 24/7 with only one judge presiding. And, the fact that the 12 justices which make up the FISA Court are all picked by the current Chief Justice of the Supreme court, and without the oversight of Congress, reveals that Conservative Chief justice John Roberts can freely afford to choose justices who all agree with his own opinions—those of a conservative Republican.
And, in fact, since the court’s inception in 1978 we have had only three different Chief Justices—all of which have also happened to be Conservative Republicans, a fact that can’t help but cast serious doubts on the ideological flexibility of justices on the FISA Court, and, since the Government alone is present at FISA court sessions, it alone provides the rationale for making valid requests of the Court—thus allowing surveillance to begin. And, without the presence of a third party to represent the public’s interest’s possible objections for any given request, it is difficult to legitimize the supposedly objective nature of decisions made by FISA judges. Obama has however at least given lip service in support of a third advocate representing the public’s welfare. Whether he uses the necessary boldness required to implement such an important reform, remains to be seen.
But, for what it’s worth, the fact that the 12 FISA judges primarily represent conservative thinking, this fact may somewhat exonerate the President’s role in facilitating such a disproportionately large number of cases which are approved by a primarily conservative FISA court and, which therefore, may only represent Republican ideologies.
The Committee to Protect Journalists recently issued a 30 page report written by Leonard Downie Junior, a former editor of The Washington Post, who delivered scathing criticisms of Obama’s actual role in creating a more open and transparent Administration—something which he had vowed to create as part of his Campaign promises. But, this promise, according to Downie, has completely failed to produce any sufficient openness and/or lack of secrecy! Downie claims that, the Administration’s war on leaks and its other efforts to control information rank among the most aggressive transgressions since the Nixon Administration, “when [he] was one of the Editors involved in the Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”
Among the many transgressions committed by Obama’s administration, are the government’s seizure of the telephone records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 AP journalists. The allegations that implicate Obama’s secrecy include an increased number of journalists whose sources have not been protected, and who are often even prosecuted on felony charges! Obama’s people are also reported to be investigating journalist’s calls and emails as part of a new, “Insider threat program” that has been implemented in every agency. Michael Oreskes, Senior Managing Editor of the AP, reports that sources “are looking over their shoulders.” And, also claims that, “the Obama Administration has been extremely controlling and resistant to “journalistic intervention.”
However White House spokesman Eric Shultz countered by listing many ways that the Whitehouse has worked to provide unprecedented openness. These include being the first to release White House visitor’s records, and the fact that the White House has improved the release of information under the Freedom of Information ACT—also strengthening whistle blower’s protections from prosecution. Obama Press Secretary, Jay Carney claimed that such complaints about the president’s lack of transparency are only part of the “natural tension” between the White House and the press. He also said that, “the idea that, people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts.” But the Committee to Protect Journalists still recommends ending the practice of charging reporters who leak information to other journalists with espionage, and preventing secret subpoenas of journalist’s records.
In all fairness, I feel it is necessary to include the fact that, the beginning of all this massive data collection—used in order to expose and prevent terrorist plots, like those which happened under G.W.’s Administration following its creation of the Patriot Act—have, supposedly, necessitated the elimination of some of our constitutional rights in order to secure the “greater good,” of preventing terrorist attacks made by unknown future terrorists. This fact is not mentioned to place blame on Bush for what Obama is doing now, but it does offer some perspective on the recent hysteria about the activities of the NSA and others Federal agencies.
It’s curious that some of the very same people who have criticized the administration so frequently for not having tight enough security in places (such as in Libya), are screaming for Obama’s head, even though, the entire practice of filtering out possible terrorist communications using mega data collection techniques, has already been used by intelligence organizations for at least a decade! So, before pre-judging the use of secrecy by Obama’s people, I’d like to dispute the hysterical idea that, mega data gathering, used by a FISA Court to authorize intelligence investigations, represents some sort of Frankenstein’s monster—specifically designed to persecute American citizens and establish an Obama dictatorship such as the kind so many members of the NRA fantasize about and, are so determined to resist.
It is also worth noting that the very people who were so determined to support the Patriot Act, and, defend its use for gathering intelligence in the same ways that Bush did, are now raising a stink to high heaven about their “precious bodily fluids” (to quote the film, Doctor Strangelove) along with their fourth Amendment rights—apparently when it is politically opportune to offer such criticisms.
It is also notable that criticisms about Obama’s lack of transparency from the press seem curiously ambiguous—while reporters fear and condemn the Administrations’ attempt to restrict the activities of the press, and to prosecute reporters for failing to reveal their sources, they are mostly concerned not with the actual frequency of these transgressions, but rather with the technical savvy of Obama and his ability to actually control the media narrative.
The 30 page report done by the Committee to Protect Journalist also includes many cases in which the Government has taken positive steps to increase its transparency, such as, Obama’s efforts to expedite the flow of information under the Freedom of Information act. And, although many of the documents released by the Government, (like those released by G.W. Bush’s administration) remain heavily redacted; many new documents have been released in compliance with the law. Also, the Whistleblower Enhancement Protection act was signed by Obama last November, and is intended to protect Federal employees from retaliation for releasing information to the press—and this includes the intelligence community.
Obama has also granted more interviews to the press than either Clinton or Bush. None-the-less many of his critics regard Obama’s efforts to increase transparency, as basically token attempts to protect Obama’s administration while making meaningless reforms—not to actually improve the overall openness of the White House. In this regard, journalist point out that his “Shield” legislation, designed to protect journalists and their sources, is accompanied by an insistence to include a national security loophole—potentially cancelling out any protections that might be available to the press!
If I may play Devil’s advocate for a moment, concerning Obama’s apparently contradictory regards for the 4th Amendment, let me bring to mind the enormous amounts of pernicious and concocted lies told about this President in particular—possibly exceeding the amount of scorn directed at any other American President throughout history! Let me also bring to mind the systematic way that Tea Partiers and even less radical Republicans have attempted to discredit the ACA—sewing completely uncalled for doubts about virtually all of the law’s many provisions—and then, let me point out that, given these harsh realities along with the ever increasing number of malicious attacks directed at the Presidents character, wouldn’t it be sort of expected that he might become a bit obsessed with controlling the media narrative which has so often accused him of spreading one viscous lie after another—even though the opposite is often true!
Let’s also consider that, it is one thing to be a member of Congress who easily passes judgments about a sitting President’s actions, but quite another to choose a course of action against Al-Qaeda, while hoping for fair and accurate coverage from the press. And, although I believe it is well known that Bush concocted the presence WMDs in orders to justify warring against an Iraqi regime which actually considered Al-Qaeda an enemy—while also holding vast oil reserves, and presenting an opportunity for nation building efforts to establish an island of democracy in the Middle East, I still recognize the fact that when terrorist attacks happen on one’s own watch, the range of our often anxious and angry responses, may suddenly increase.
Bush may have been correct to state that his administration knew things that we don’t—just as Obama’s might also have discovered. It would probably, therefore, become important for him to avoid excessive domestic criticisms that might cast a bad light on the many important political problems that he must currently take care of.
A final point to make should be that because our history has nurtured an automatic distrust of government in most Americans, we might tend to overreact and be overly concerned about government polices that are actually, already a big part of our lives.
Ironically, much of our own personal information is already being shared on social media sites like Face book and Twitter as well as in our emails and cell phone calls. And, although we regularly share our feelings about sex, our preferred pets, our recent divorces or recent romances, plus our opinions about ourselves and others, including our love of Jesus, and which wines we prefer to drink, as well as any other ideas concerning the world and the life we live in, we can still become extremely upset over the fact that our government might be able to read some of our emails — even though such a thing can only happen if the NSA detects a pattern in our communications that involves suspected or known members of Al-Qaeda, and then is able meets the requirement of establishing reasonable suspicion, before actually viewing and reading our private correspondences!
Ironically, we are not raising nearly as much of a stink over inconveniencing air-port security measures, but, when the methods required to protect us, might begin to inadvertently reveal our latest letter to Aunt Mabel, we then become immediately concerned. And, although we also could care less if Anthony Weiner has the opportunity to send us a picture of his wiener, yet, the fact that our phone numbers may be examined in order to uncover dangerous connections to terrorists—therefore warning most of us of possible dangers to our wellbeing—completely offends us, and, completely freaks us out!
Picture the fact that your daily postal carrier is able to read all of the various names and addresses on packages from your friends, families and businesses associates who might contact you through the US mail. Then, realize that even if your postal carriers are permitted to read the names and addresses of packages and letters from your significant friends and family members, they are still not allowed to open your letters and packages without seeking official permission from the authorities—especially if one of those packages says, “Eat anthrax Obama lover!”—in which case the hazardous material squad, should be notified first!
I am not saying that overly aggressive treatments of the Press or overzealous uses of mega data should be permitted without considering one’s scruples, only that, given the supercharged dishonesty and the blatant propaganda existing in Washington DC, it is not completely unreasonable to cut Obama some slack, and occasionally offer him the simple benefit of the doubt for worrying about deliberate distortions of his political beliefs—considering that, many of our ill-conceived intentions are not openly displayed, even as they are being deftly juggled in the hands of the mainstream media.
It’s important to know the real truth and, not falsely judge the character of those who sincerely try to convey that truth to the rest of us.
Peter Johnson is a senior citizen who has become much more interested in what is happening in America and the world, than he was as a young man. He’s interested in poetry and expository writing, and has had letters to the editor published in Time magazine, Newsweek and Playboy magazine. He is concerned about ignorance and indifference that has been circulated concerning the significance of man made global warming and is dismayed dismayed by the way political lies and corruption are being used to influence the public (apparently free from any penalties or adequate culpability). He frequently writes letters of opinion to the editors of his local newspapers.