The Surveillance Scandals

06.06.13

NSA Spying Shows Obama’s Machine Out of Control

Verizon. AP. IRS. Obama’s not the problem—it’s a government that has grown too big to control. John Avlon on how to tame the leviathan and save the president’s second term.

With news that Verizon was required to hand over supposedly private domestic phone records to the government as part of a national security dragnet, the second-term curse just got much more real for the Obama administration.

130606-obama-lawn-tease
Britain's Guardian newspaper says the National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a secret court order. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

To date, however, the Obama second-term scandals do not seem carelessly self-inflicted from the top like those of the past, from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica or even the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply destructive to President Obama’s legacy.

What connects the unruly and still-evolving scandals—ranging from the IRS to AP to Verizon—is a portrait of an increasingly out-of-control federal bureaucracy that moves with an unaccountable borg-mind of its own. 

This is the leviathan that libertarians and conservatives have warned about in sometimes overheated, hyperpartisan terms. The problem predates President Obama—government has been growing more or less consistently since the founding of the Republic, but especially since the New Deal, outpacing the growth of population. Now the complexities and temptations that come with new technology have hatched scandals that move almost on autopilot: leak investigations are announced and the gears of secret government churn on their own, often under the constitutional imperative of national security, sometimes leading to conditions contrary to the chief executive’s wishes and vision.

This is a particular problem for President Obama and the cause of progressive governance. Obama wants to be able to show, contra Reagan, that government can play a positive role in people’s lives—and he knows that to make that sale he needs to be able to show that good government can be efficient and effective.

But in a vast federal government, someone somewhere is invariably screwing up. And the advent of social media makes those screw-ups last for a long time—outliving the anecdotal absurdities and providing indelible digital evidence of, say, IRS workers taking million-dollar taxpayer-funded retreats where they put on skits dressed up like the cast members of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island.

More troubling to the cause of civil liberties is the presence of metadata–tracking technologies that are employed in national-security investigations but end up affecting law-abiding Americans. Our technologies have outpaced our laws, and basic privacy rights are at stake. The slow-moving crisis is now upon us.

Video screenshot

'Somebody's gotta go to jail for something.' Watch these amateur Internet pundits scold the government for its latest scandal, collecting phone records.

The answer lies not just in new laws, but in something different: radical simplification.

But the predictable rush to the partisan ramparts leads to situational ethics rather than constructive action. With too few exceptions, Democrats try to defend the Obama administration for presiding over actions that would have caused them to scream bloody murder if they occurred under the Bush administration. Likewise, Republicans who see political benefit in suddenly finding their inner civil libertarian did not seem nearly so concerned when their party was in power. Contrast Patriot Act votes with current outraged calls for investigations (I’m looking at you, Darrell Issa). Voices of admirable consistency on these issues, like the family Paul, deserve credit for at least avoiding this situational ethics trap.

But there’s really no reason to believe that, given current laws and very real national-security concerns, a future Republican administration would be much better on this front.

Republicans have a rhetorical advantage. Reagan’s call that “government is the problem” serves as a kind of political prophylactic, insulating conservatives from fully owning bureaucratic messes that occur on their watch. Going back to Reagan and before, there is little reason to think that rhetoric about being the party of small government comports with their record of actually growing government. That’s why their political posture always rings a bit hollower to my ears. The people who are running for elected office while railing against government are often obvious hypocrites. They aren’t really anti-government; they just want to run the government.

All that said, Democrats like Obama have the outsized burden of owning bureaucratic scandals in the public imagination. Which is why swift action and accountability is even more necessary to restore the broken trust.

IRS retreats must be ended and the implicated individuals fired.  Whatever legal logic leads to the indictment of journalists as co-conspirators in a leak investigation—or, far worse, the secret suborning of phone records of millions of private citizens for nothing resembling probable cause—must be stopped. Our laws and procedures must be updated to reflect new technologies. But getting our divided, dysfunctional Congress to agree on a course of action seems like a pipe dream.

That’s why the answer lies not just in new laws, but in something different: radical simplification. Complexity combined with new technologies is eroding trust in government and adding untold burdens to businesses and individuals. 

One constructive administration response to the IRS scandals, for example, would be to aggressively advance what in 2008 was an Obama campaign policy promise: tax simplification. This might just turn the conversation and lead to engagement with Republicans in Congress. Lobbyists will oppose the effort, of course, because they have been the prime force in larding up existing laws and regulations with carve-outs and loopholes that benefit their clients. But for any modestly progressive vision of government to work—or at least to triumph over cynicism—simplification needs to be imposed. There is no reason (other than the outsized influence of unions) that Democrats should be opposed to this effort to repair broken trust in government.  Alternatively, and in concert, Republicans can find new credibility with a rising generation by actually working toward a vision of energetic but limited government that goes beyond campaign promises and bumper-sticker slogans.

President Obama is wrestling with the leviathan and much more than just his legacy is at stake. The problems that have led to these scandals are larger than the Obama administration—there are deeper dynamics at work that will not change when the administration departs in 2017. That’s why the problem needs to be dealt with now, through a prescription of radical simplification, backed by an unlikely but necessary advocate: a pragmatic progressive president.