National Security

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail.

Three Guiding Principles for NSA Reform

Many Americans are disturbed by government data-mining, but what can we actually do to change the system we're so uncomfortable with? 

AP Images/Oliver Berg

Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who leaked the details of top secret National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs could have tried to remain anonymous and avoid the consequences of his actions. That he chose not to, instead recording a lengthy interview explaining his motives and worldview, is remarkable for a modern-day leaker. While his supporters complain that the subsequent focus on Snowden has directed attention away from his leaks, his decisions—and his moral calculus—are actually central to the public debate that’s erupted.

Your Guide to the Polls on U.S. Military Involvement in Syria

Flickr/Freedom House

It's obviously a bad idea for the administration to decide whether to jump into a whole new Middle East quagmire based on whether the famously inattentive and uninformed American public thinks it's a good idea. Nevertheless, public opinion is inevitably going to play a role in President Obama's decision-making on this. That isn't to say Obama won't take any particular step unless the polls show the public approves, but any time a politician does something unpopular, he'll always be looking over his shoulder a little bit.

So what do the American people think about the prospect of American military involvement in Syria?

Where's the Intelligence Fallout?

That's what you say, but how can we be sure? (Flickr/sunnyUK)

You can make a reasonable argument for why Edward Snowden was wrong to release the information he did to the Guardian and the Washington Post (for instance, here's Jeffrey Toobin and here's Josh Marshall making that argument). But if you're going to really turn Snowden into a villain, you'd have to show that the leaks did some kind of demonstrable harm to American national security. Even if you don't find Snowden's action heroic, it's quite possible that leaking this classified information was illegal and wrong, but nevertheless didn't do much damage or make us less safe than we otherwise were.

So what is that harm? What the government has been saying so far isn't all that persuasive.

Follow the Leaker

I don't know about you, but I don't feel like I'll truly understand the citizen's relationship to government in an age of sweeping electronic surveillance until I read Edward Snowdon's girlfriend's blog. And this morning, Fox & Friends answered the question everyone in America was surely asking: Does Lou Ferrigno think Snowdon is a traitor? (For the record, Ferrigno's response was nuanced, but leaned toward "yes.") But let's say you're glad you found out what The Hulk thinks, but you're still asking yourself, "Has Rob Schneider weighed in on this yet?" Politico has you covered.

We all know that the news runs on personalities; a "story" without protagonists and antagonists isn't a story at all, it's just an "issue," and that's dullsville. But I'm sure the White House couldn't be happier that the NSA story is quickly becoming dominated by a discussion of Edward Snowdon himself, which naturally crowds out discussion of the substance of his leak and whether we want to make adjustments to the policies and programs he revealed.

Why the Public Doesn't Care about Surveillance

Pew Research Center

If there’s a major political problem faced by civil libertarians—on both sides of the aisle—it’s that there isn’t a large constituency for civil libertarian ideas. It’s not hard to see why. We have concrete examples of what happens when the federal government doesn’t make anti-terrorism a priority. The United States isn’t a stranger to civil liberties violations, but overwhelmingly, they’ve targeted the more marginal members of our society: Political dissidents, and racial and religious minorities. For the large majority of Americans, the surveillance state is an abstraction, and insofar that it would lead to abuses, they don’t perceive themselves as a target. And, in general, it’s hard to get people motivated when there isn’t a threat.

When the Bushies Return

Remember this guy? (Department of Defense/Denny Cantrell

Last week I noted that most people are being pretty consistent in how they were reacting to the revelations about NSA spying on your phone records, your internet surfing, your toenail hygiene practices, and whatever else we're going to learn they've been up to (Glenn Greenwald is promising more revelations). There are some liberals defending it and some conservatives criticizing it, but most people seem to be holding to roughly the same positions they held when George W. Bush initiated these kinds of practices.

Having said that, it's far from black and white. There's a very strong temptation when a controversy like this arises to just step in with your party's official position, but in this case neither party has an official position. Most liberals look to be at odds with a Democratic president, and there is some disagreement on the right between the neo-cons and libertarians despite their mutual dislike of Barack Obama, as Michael Tomasky discusses. Nevertheless, if this were a Republican president, liberals would probably be far more worked up than they are now. Instead of saying "This is troubling," they'd be saying "This is an outrage!"

Well if you're looking for a reason to upgrade your anger, consider this: What do you think is going to happen when the next Republican president takes office?

A Shocking Outbreak of Intellectual Consistency

National Security Agency headquarters (photo from

As soon as an issue like the NSA surveillance comes along (and by the way, it needs a name—BigDataGulp, perhaps?), we immediately start hearing charges of hypocrisy. When a Democratic administration does something normally associated with Republicans, we've come to expect everybody to give their partisan affiliations precedence over their prior substantive beliefs, and switch sides. So liberals should now be fervently defending the government's right to see who you called and read your emails, and conservatives should be decrying the expansion of the national security state. And most of all, everyone should be accusing everyone else of hypocrisy.

But weirdly enough, though there are some charges of hypocrisy, actual hypocrisy is in relatively short supply, outside of a few isolated cases here and there. I've spent the morning going around to web sites of various political stripes, and amazingly, most commentators seem to be taking the same positions they did on this matter during the Bush years. Yeah, there are a few buffoonish conservatives like Michelle Malkin who will go on Fox News and say they're shocked, shocked, and what Barack Obama is doing is far worse than anything George W. Bush did, and there are some Democratic members of Congress defending the program (but they all voted for it when they supported the Patriot Act, don't forget). But on the whole what you're seeing are liberals and libertarians criticizing the NSA surveillance, just as they did when Bush was president, and conservatives sort-of defending it.

Get Your Hands Off My War on Terror!

AP Images/Holly Ramer

President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

“Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “Groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked another important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like kids who have just had their favorite toy taken away, conservative hawks are freaking out.

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper

Today, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny.

Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush's administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda or even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone could use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win.

Nevertheless, when Barack Obama was running for president, you might have thought that five years into his presidency there wouldn't be much of a War on Terror left. Most visibly, he wanted to get us out of Iraq, then wrap up Afghanistan. Mission, well, sort of maybe eventually accomplished. But the War on Terror lives on, at our airports, in government budgets, and in our laws.

Bin Laden Photos to Stay Hidden

This will remain Bin Laden's enduring image.

Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view.

At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the columnI wrote:

If at First You Don't Succeed, Bomb, Bomb Again

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

In testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman made clear that the U.S. would continue to look for ways to raise the pressure on Tehran, even as it remained committed to a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But she also cautioned against steps that would foreclose diplomatic options or damage the international consensus that the administration has worked so effectively to forge. “As we move forward, it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far,” Sherman said.

Pakistan's Industry of Violence

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

I was at an uncle’s house in Peshawar a couple of months ago when the windows began to rattle. One of my youngest cousins walked towards them, peering out nervously. “It’s an earthquake,” she said almost hopefully. I looked at her father who shook his head slowly, but only when his daughter had turned back to the window. It was as if he wanted her to believe that the quivering earth was the result of a mere natural disaster. And then the windows began to clatter again. The 14-year-old slunk onto the couch beside her father. Her sisters and mother filed in around the TV, scarves draped over their heads, lips moving in prayer. It didn’t take long for live coverage to begin. The site of the attack was the city airport, just a couple miles from where we were. Even more disconcerting, the rockets began to fire where, just a few minutes prior, my aunt had driven on her way home. Once we’d been watching long enough that the news reports had become repetitive—the same bloodied shirts and broken asphalt dominating the screen—my uncle began to call all of our relatives. He started with those closest to where the rockets fell and worked his way out. For the first time, I did the same, calling people on my father’s side of the family.

I’ve followed news of such attacks for years, and have done so even more closely now that I'm working as a reporter in Pakistan—a place where this past Saturday, Election Day, nearly 30 people were killed in violence as the country took to the polls. Despite the constant barrage of chilling headlines, I never bothered to reach out to my relatives to check up on them. But then again, before the attack on the airport, I never truly understood what it's like to feel so unsafe standing in the middle of your living room. The same feeling of terror struck me again just a couple of weeks ago when I discovered, via Twitter, an unfolding scene of chaos at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Benghazi Was Neither a Terrorist Attack Nor an Act of Terror

Pinocchios for everyone! (Vladimir Menkov/Wikimedia Commons)

I am hereby declaring 99 Pinocchios on Barack Obama, all the people who work for him, everyone in the Republican party, and most everyone in the press who has reported on Benghazi.

This is about what has to be one of the most inane disagreements in the history of American politics, the argument about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" or a "terrorist attack." Incredibly, people are still bickering over this. The other day Darrell Issa expressed his outrage that Obama had, in his diabolical attempt to cover up the incident, used the phrase "act of terror," which, let's be honest, is almost like saying, "Way to go, al Qaeda!", instead of using the far, far, far more condemnatory phrase "terrorist attack." It's like the difference between saying "steaming pile of bullshit" when you ought to say "steaming bullshit pile"—anyone who can't tell the difference between the two obviously can't be trusted to run the country. Then the ordinarily reasonable Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's fact-checker, sternly judged Obama to be guilty of a Four Pinnochio whopper, because at his last press conference he said, "The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism," when in fact he didn't say "act of terrorism but just "act of terror." Facts? Checked.

But here's what nobody seems to get: Benghazi was not a terrorist act. Or an act of terror. Or an act of terrorism.

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes.