President Obama Doesn't Welcome Debate, He Actively Thwarts It

When the White House says it values debate on balancing civil liberties and national security, it's being disingenuous.
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Reuters

Look at what White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest kept telling reporters about the NSA's seizure of Verizon customer records. "The president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties," he said as he finished reading a prepared statement.

In the question-and-answer session with the press that followed, he said (emphasis added): 

Now, the thing that I want to make clear is that the top priority of the president of the United States is the national security of the United States and protecting this homeland.  And we need to make sure that we have the tools we need to confront the threat posed by terrorists, to disrupt plots that may exist, and to otherwise protect the homeland.  The President is committed to that.  That is his top priority.

But what we need to do is we need to balance that priority with the need to protect the civil liberties and constitutional rights of the American people.  And that is the subject of a worthy debate -- that there are people who have a genuine interest in protecting the United States and protecting constitutional liberties -- constitutional rights and civil liberties that may disagree about how to strike this balance.  We welcome that debate.  The President has spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I think that was evident in his speech and I think that's evident from the way these programs have been conducted.

What a bunch of hooey.

President Obama kept the data collection in question a highly classified state secret. If it were up to the White House, we wouldn't know of the program's existence, ever. As a consequence, there would have been no debate about its appropriateness. If Obama values debate, he doesn't value it as much as keeping secrets that inevitably make debate impossible. Senators like Ron Wyden plead for an open debate. Obama thwarted them. The president's fans claim that he speaks to Americans like we're adults. Here his White House is treating us like gullible children.

And not only here. There are a whole range of national-security matters on which Obama has preempted debate. Sometimes he does so by pretending that he himself is uncomfortable with the very position he is implementing, and has already decided to change course, even though the change never comes. But what most demonstrates his disingenuousness is the instances in which he has kept some subjects classified even after they were openly discussed, to avoiding having to debate them, both in court and in the public square, on more equal terms with his civil-libertarian critics. In those cases, his method of "debate" was secretly authorizing leaks to convey his often-misleading position, but refusing to speak on the record -- after all, drone strikes were classified.

Obama doesn't get to behave as he has and does, and benefit from the impression that he is an enlightened lover of debate who'd never dream of short-circuiting the crucible of public discourse. If it were up to him, we'd be ignorant about many federal actions that we are now debating. He talks like a liberal -- and acts illiberally.

His preferences on debate are thereby revealed.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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