Terrorism Could Never Threaten American Values—the 'War on Terror' Does

It is long past time for Barack Obama to show that he understands this truth.
Nixon in his "I am not a crook" press

It's an established and obvious point, a corollary to the famous post-Watergate principle that "it's always the cover-up, never the crime." The "crime" might initially seem serious, or at least embarrassing: sending the Watergate burglars to spy on Richard Nixon's Democratic opponents, whatever happened between Bill Clinton and Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. But of course what came after is what did the real damage.

So too in the world of terrorism. Attacks can be terribly destructive, as we saw in hideous form 12 years ago. But the long-term threat to national interests and values comes from the response they evoke. In the case of 9/11: The attack was disastrous, but in every measurable way the rash, foolish, and unjustified decision to retaliate by invading Iraq hurt America in more lasting ways. I make that case herehere, here.

Barack Obama seemed to recognize that as early as 2002, in arguing against the invasion of Iraq; and through his 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton based on her misjudgment in supporting the Iraq war; and in 2013 in saying that it was at last time to conclude the otherwise open-ended "Global War on Terror." 

But the revelations that come out every day of programs that began under Bush and have continued under Obama suggest that he doesn't grasp this as clearly as he should. Or recognize the lasting stain it threatens to leave on his record.* 

This latest NSA news from Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani in the Washington Post (working with Edward Snowden) about NSA hacking right into Google's and Yahoo's "clouds" rather than presenting the companies with subpoenas, really is appalling. How are these companies supposed to view a government that is actively working to infiltrate them? How are any of the global customers they are trying to hard to attract supposed to feel about leaving info in their hands? To say nothing of U.S. customers. Warrants from secret courts—that's bad enough, and at least pays lip service to the idea of laws and rule. There is no excuse for the intrusions these documents appear to show.

I have good friends who work or have worked at NSA, and I know that they have the enlightened best interests of the country always in mind. But over-reach by their agency and the security establishment—starting under Bush, ongoing under Obama—is badly harming American interests, ideals, and institutions. The president is the only person in a position to signal a change in course, and he had better do it fast.

Here is one of the images from the latest Post story, in which the NSA is happy-facing its success in cracking Google's internals.

* Yes, such Democratic idealists as Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and such a Republican/American hero as Abraham Lincoln, encroached on civil liberties during their respective wars. But those were temporary, and the wars ended. Obama needs to take actions that match his words about the risks of a permanent-warfare state.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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