NSA is next in a long line of Obama scandals

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Were the leaks about the government's collection of data on our telephone calls, credit card transactions, and emails orchestrated by Obama aides to distract attention from other scandals?

More than a few seasoned political observers suspect this.

Snooping by the National Security Agency can at least partly be blamed on former President George W. Bush, and the furor has pushed the Benghazi and IRS scandals off the front page, they say.

True. But I doubt any of his aides think the president benefits by having comedian Stephen Colbert describe Mr. Obama as "a tyrannical despot who ignores all the rules," and the New York Times declare he's lost all credibility.

"We wanted a president that listens to all Americans -- now we have one," joked comedian Jay Leno. But few liberals are laughing. Dismaying his base is a high price for the president to pay for distraction that likely will only be temporary.

Serial scandals impose a cumulative cost. As each new scandal provides more reasons for doubting the veracity of officials, some who accepted administration explanations for earlier scandals become skeptics.

The older scandals will grow or shrink depending on whether pertinent new facts are brought to light. If more are, the newer scandals heighten concern about them.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden strikes me as sincerely motivated -- though his flight to Hong Kong and the fact that his leak so closely followed disclosure of massive Chinese cyber spying could suggest a darker motive.

Mr. Snowden also strikes me as immature and naive. Even if his heart is pure, we shouldn't take what he says at face value. Neither he nor Glenn Greenwald, the author of the exposé, "have a clue how this thing works," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

There are "two major, inseparable issues" in assessing NSA surveillance, said Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the kingpin in the first World Trade Center bombing. "(a) Is the awesome power to collect information essential for national security in light of our current threat environment, and (b) even if it is, should we trust the government to wield this power both lawfully and prudently?"

The answer to (a) probably is yes, Mr. McCarthy thinks. For most Americans, the answer to (b) is no.

This could have tragic consequences. NSA mining of telephone metadata (numbers called and duration of calls) poses no threat to our privacy, and can detect suspicious patterns.

If PRISM, which does grab content from emails, is restricted to foreign nationals abroad, as James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, claims, then it's a valuable tool.

But both Mr. Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander have misled Congress about the scope of surveillance activities, so their credibility is suspect.

Attorney General Eric Holder's own dissumulations, and his highly selective approach to prosecuting leaks do not inspire confidence.

NSA analysts eavesdropped on people with whom they had personal grudges, Mr. Greenwald claims. If true, this is chilling.

So is this: Mr. Obama is putting together a campaign database that "will have information about everything on every individual," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.

President Obama may have cast doubt where it is unwarranted when he claimed, falsely, that "every member of Congress has been briefed on this program." The Patriot Act requires only that party leaders and members of the Intelligence committees be informed, which is prudent.

A secret told to too many doesn't remain secret for long. When they say they're obeying the law, officials could be telling the truth. But it's hard to trust those who've deceived us so often.

"NSA intelligence gathering is President Obama's Katrina," said Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. "While the accusations may be ignorant and unfair, it nevertheless becomes the final blow that drains support from independents and his base...This is a perfect example of how an abundance of hubris and dearth of honesty cripple a president."


This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476.


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