Not long before he left office, George W. Bush said, with respect to foreign policy, "Anyone who sits where I sit and knows what I know will do what I'm doing."
To a considerable degree, Barack Obama's actions have proven that statement to be true. He withdrew Americans from Iraq on Bush's schedule; he put Bush's favorite general in command in Afghanistan, when things were going badly there; he continued — indeed, expanded — Bush's program of drone surveillance and attacks. And as the current furor over Edward Snowden's disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) activities and capabilities have made very clear, President Obama has vigorously continued the programs of that agency as well.
The arguments about the propriety of governmental data gathering were raised when Congress passed and President Bush signed the Patriot Act.
"Violation of our liberties!" said those on both ends of the political spectrum, right and left, united in their distrust of the government. "Essential to our security," replied those privy to the classified briefings. In the end, the Patriot Act was passed and then renewed by very large majorities in both parties. In the years since, no cases claiming civil liberties abuse under its provisions have been filed, suggesting that fears about the act were overblown. The issue faded.
The NSA revelations have brought it back. Snowden says he's a defender of civil liberties, but the government says he's given aid to the enemy. Which raises the obvious question, "What enemy? Are we at war?"
Some say "no" because Congress has not declared war, as required by the Constitution. However, that definition of war assumes something that takes place between two nations, and the leaders of al-Qaida do not constitute a nation. They operate through groups located in several different countries, using suicide bombers aimed at large crowds or symbolic targets. They successfully attacked us once and are constantly attempting to do it again. Congress' action in authorizing the president to take action against them is tantamount to a declaration of war under the circumstances.
NSA is key to carrying out that mandate. In this fight, we gather, analyze and act on information rather than deploy tanks or nuclear submarines. Further, al-Qaida is not our only challenger. I have been in the Pentagon where a huge chart tracks hacking attacks aimed at the Department of Defense, 24 hours a day. Most come from sources other than al-Qaida, including some countries we consider our historic allies. These attempts to break in numbered tens of thousands each hour then; the level is undoubtedly much higher now. When it comes to cyber threats, the cliché is true: "Everybody's doing it."17 comments on this story
In such a world, on which "ally" should we depend for information vital to our security? To which other country should we cede our leadership in intelligence gathering and analysis?
President Bush was determined to see that America maintained its lead in this arena. He made sure that Congress was fully informed — I was always able to get my questions answered, and I wasn't even on the Intelligence Committee — and President Obama has wisely followed the same policy. Those who should have known about the details of the program did, as the strong bipartisan defense of NSA coming from Congress makes clear.
Every program, no matter how meritorious, should be periodically reviewed. There may well be better ways for NSA to do its job. However, in today's interconnected and computer-dependent world, neither Obama nor any future president will abandon this activity, as Snowden would like, nor should he. Doing so would leave us, "Naked before our enemies."
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.