Bob Franken: The surveillance drug addiction
With our teeny attention spans, we’re used to what could be called "Fireworks Controversies." They light up the political sky, and quickly disappear, then another flares into a momentary blast of commotion. Some, however, are too consequential for that, and they stick around to fill the void for more than just an instant. The ruckus over the government’s encroachment into our personal lives is one of those.
President Barack Obama — who is establishing a legacy as the most zealous national security warrior, more even than his Cheney-Bush predecessors — has been forced to shed any pretense and now defiantly says he welcomes a debate over the "choices as a society," between "100 percent security and ... 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." Never mind that as senator and president wannabe he was fond of calling that a "false choice," but the former con-law professor also is offering a far-too-simplistic choice: The real question is not whether there must be a trade-off, but how much of one.
As someone with a long track record of frivolous debating, I think this can be better likened to one of those pharmaceutical ads that saturate our TV. Imagine the various shots of patriotic Americans at parades that tug at the heart strings celebrating baseball, motherhood and apple pie; cue the soothing narration:
"The secret is out. The best formula for combatting deadly terrorism is PRIVACIDE. That’s right, PRIVACIDE works in new ways to track down the cells that metastasize into lethal mass violence and then sends drones to wipe them out."
At this point, Mr. or Ms. Announcer jumps in to race through all the side effects:
"PRIVACIDE must be used with caution. Experience has shown that it will spread to those who have no connection whatsoever to terrorism. The drones have a high probability of killing nearby innocents. It will cause leaks, which reduces its effectiveness. While PRIVACIDE may prove useful in combatting deadly terrorism, overuse can cause severe harm to our nation in many other ways."
Ignoring all that, the pitch person will end with: "PRIVACIDE, the strongest prescription for protection. A product of Orwell Labs."
See how easy that is to understand? Ultimately some may conclude this is too bitter a pill to swallow, particularly since any information about it is classified. How foolish is that? Secrecy, like privacy, is an outmoded concept. All presidents and their national security teams accomplish with their furtiveness fetishes is to undermine their credibility. President Obama definitely doesn’t need that right now. The disclosures that investigators put journalists under surveillance was an embarrassment at the very least and a reflection of the same kind of mindset. The Internal Revenue Service scandal that just won’t go away also raised similar fears about government intrusiveness and administration truthfulness. It’s fair to say that the Obama presidency has hit some stormy seas and might want to change course to avoid sinking.
For starters, it’s probably worth noting that the Barack Obama re-election was based not only on his approval, but more the strong disapproval of the opposition and its oligarchical and intolerant policies. Republicans are still intense in their sheer contempt for him. The White House problem is that the passion on his side has been no match for the hatred of his enemies, who question his very legitimacy as chief executive. He can’t afford to allow support on his side to dwindle, but it already has. The volume of complaints is growing from those who were ready to believe in the message of change, but now are concluding that it was an empty promise.
These perplexing disclosures and the skepticism they engender are cumulative. They soon pile up and weigh down a president striving to deal with the nation’s ills. If the Obama team continues to be careless, they instead will give themselves a prescription for failure.
Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.