What it was, precisely, that surprised him is unclear. The Times mentions tapping Angela Merkel’s phone as one surprise, but how many others were there and at what level of detail? It’s one thing for the president not to know the particulars of individual investigations as they’re happening; it’s another thing for him not to know, say, that PRISM exists. Which is it? Remember, this is a guy with a funny knack for remaining blissfully ignorant of his underlings’ worst screw-ups and excesses. Did he not know what the NSA was up to because they were hiding it from him or because he’d made clear that he didn’t want to know?
At the same time, aides said Mr. Obama was surprised to learn after leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, just how far the surveillance had gone. “Things seem to have grown at the N.S.A.,” Mr. Plouffe said, citing specifically the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones. “I think it was disturbing to most people, and I think he found it disturbing.”
Yet it is hard to express indignation at actions of the government after five years of running it, and some involved in surveillance note that it was Mr. Obama who pushed national security agencies to be aggressive in hunting terrorists. “For some, his outrage does ring a little bit hollow,” said a former counterterrorism official….
[A]fter he won the election, surveillance issues were off his agenda; instead, he focused on banning interrogation techniques he deemed torture and trying, futilely, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “There wasn’t really any serious discussion of what N.S.A. was up to,” said a former intelligence official, who like others did not want to be named describing internal conversations.
He also allegedly derided Snowden to his confidants as an, ahem, “self-important narcissist.” I’m intrigued, though, that it was the tapping of Merkel’s phone that apparently set him off, as that’s way down the list of NSA practices that Americans are troubled by. The public will give the White House a break on traditional spycraft abroad, even if it involves something as delicate as listening into a key ally’s conversations. It’s the massive data dragnet at home that’s worrisome. Interesting that O sees it the opposite way, but not surprising: The chilly relations with Merkel lately are more likely to make his job harder than NSA abuses that barely register when Americans are asked what their top priorities on policy.
Take advantage of the slow news day and read the entire NYT piece, as it’s a chronicle of how quickly O’s civil libertarian rhetoric circa 2007 changed once it became his job to protect the country from terrorism. That’s a predictable response from any mainstream politician: If you’re the guy who’ll be blamed the next time hijackers successfully aim a plane at a skyscraper, you’ll think twice before laying down a weapon that might conceivably prevent that. Obama’s metamorphosis on NSA surveillance might not have been as cynical as Hillary copping to opposing the surge in Iraq for electoral reasons, but it’s a potent reminder before 2016 that where you stand depends on where you sit. Even President Rand Paul wouldn’t be immune, although he’s probably less susceptible than anyone else.
The Times piece also shows fairly conclusively that Snowden fans are right when they say that NSA reforms never would have landed on Obama’s agenda if not for the leaks. O likes to blather that domestic surveillance is a “debate we need to have” or whatever, but he clearly had no interest in debating it. The GOP wasn’t hassling him over it, it was a useful counterterror tool at his disposal (if not in terms of actual results than in terms of hard proof that he was doing everything he could to prevent terrorism) — if it ain’t broke, O apparently thought, why fix it? Turns out a lot of people do think it’s broke, even if fixing it isn’t a top priority, and a lot of those people are in his base. That’s why he’s giving a speech tomorrow about NSA reforms; as with his big speech about drones last year, the point is less to propose meaningful reforms than to simply gesture to liberals that he’s capital-c Concerned about this and intends to do something about it. Judging from the tea leaves, most of the changes he’s planning to propose are cosmetic, like letting telecom companies hold users’ data instead of the government but not requiring a warrant for the NSA to access those user databases. The gesture of reform is what’s important here, not the reform itself.
Oh, and per WaPo, after he’s done proposing a few changes himself, he’s going to punt this over to Congress and let them clean it up. That’s perfectly appropriate but highly unusual for a guy who’s spent the past few years arguing that he can do all sorts of things as an executive, including suspending key parts of laws enacted by Congress, without congressional approval. (The whole thrust of the White House’s message this week, in fact, is that O will act where Congress won’t.) The last time he decided to boot a matter over to the legislature that he probably could have dealt with himself was his proposed attack on Syria in August — coincidentally, another policy matter that he’d badly bungled and was suddenly desperate to share blame for. Oh well. Harry Reid’s and John Boehner’s problem now.