President Obama calls his vast domestic spying operation a "modest encroachment on privacy."
Another defender of the Eavesdropping State, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., assures Americans they would support the president's stance — if only they knew as much as she does. "Here's the rub," she said. "The instances where this has produced good — has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks, is all classified. That's what's so hard about this."
Walter Pincus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter at The Washington Post, says the Washington press corps made too much of the Obama administration's seizure of telephone records at the Associated Press. "What's lost," he wrote, "is the damaging and criminal leak."
Obama, Feinstein, and Pincus are well-meaning leaders in a national security community that grapples every day with threats the rest of us can't imagine. No doubt they struggle to strike the right balance between the oft-conflicting demands to keep American safe and free.
But here's the rub: It is our struggle, too. At a time when Americans have little faith in U.S. political and media institutions, it is not sufficient to say, "Trust us." Secrecy sows doubt and paranoia.
Elites in the White House, Congress, and the national security media need to stop whispering to (and covering for) each other. Tell us what our government is doing, and why.
The response is predictable: Don't be naive! Discussing secret national security programs will tip off the terrorists and make the United States vulnerable!
I don't buy it. There must be a way to shed a modicum of light on how far Presidents Bush and Obama stretched the Patriot Act. Surely, it's possible to start an open and honest conversation about drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and big data in general terms that don't expose cherished "sources and methods."
How do I know this? Because it's done all the time, usually when transparency suits a White House's political agenda. The Bush administration declassified (bad) intelligence about Iraq to sell the war to a skeptical public. The Obama White House opened intelligence files on the assassination of Osama bin Laden to promote the president's reelection bid.
And there is this Orwellian habit: Virtually every unauthorized leak, including the most recent ones about the prying eyes and ears at the National Security Agency, is followed by the release of classified information (an authorized leak) that supports the administration's case against leaks.
Most Americans want to give the president the benefit of the doubt on national security. They want to believe their elected representatives are fully briefed, as Obama dubiously claims, and committed to intensive oversight. They'd like the media to be a backstop against abuse.
But these institutions keep failing Americans. Why should we trust them? The nation's Founders baked skepticism into the Constitution, requiring checks and balances and an ethos of transparency that Obama embraced as a candidate in 2008.
The Bush administration, Obama said in 2007, "puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand."
Telling Americans they need to be treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed BS) or exposed to greater threats is Obama's false choice. The president and his fellow Washington elites need to start treating Americans like grown-ups.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.