The essential and enduring feature of both post-9/11 presidents has been their shared contention that their core objective — and by extension, that of the executive branch — is to protect U.S. citizens from one particular form of harm: terrorist violence. Both success and failure at achieving this objective have justified the expansion of additional authorities and tools. If there are no terrorist attacks, then all policies in place must remain, but when terrorist plots are revealed or the rare attack occurs, then additional tools and secrecy are mandated. Like a ratchet wrench, it only works in one direction. It does not matter if these presidential powers erode individual civil liberties or the ability of citizens to comprehend or evaluate the activities of the national security state. Again, the executive branch’s obligation is less to protect citizens’ constitutional rights than it is to protect citizens’ lives, but only from terrorists.
The White House’s response to the serial NSA revelations last week vividly showcased this mindset. Press secretary Josh Earnest declared: “The top priority of the president of the United States is the national security of the United States and protecting this homeland.” The president, meanwhile, defended the status quo by making a classic straw-man argument: “If every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures.” Obama also noted that if this information is “just dumped out willy-nilly, it’s very hard for us to be effective.” (This echoed his straw-man characterization of drone strikes: “There’s this perception that we’re just sending a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”)