Security versus privacy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 11, 2013


President Obama would have preferred not to have gone through the crisis triggered by revelations about the government spying on phone records of the American public. His approval ratings have suffered and the controversy over what the government did has put additional hurdles on the already slowing-moving White House legislative agenda.  However, on the security versus privacy trade off, most Americans take the side of more security. Thus, the political costs for Obama are mostly circumscribed to liberal voters who feel betrayed by the decision to compromise privacy in the name of improving security.


President Obama has been severely criticized for the government’s implementation of a program that intrudes in the privacy of millions of Americans whose phone records have been obtained by the National Security Agency (NSA) and whose phone conversations might have been heard by the leading government’s spy agency.  Though President Obama has vehemently denied that the privacy of phone conversations has been violated, most Americans suspect that the NSA might have gone beyond its prerogatives and power in the way it has used the information collected from phone companies.  Liberals and privacy advocates have questioned the usefulness of these privacy intrusion policies in fighting the war against terror.  According to them, what the intelligence community learns from these privacy intrusions is far less than what society as a whole loose from allowing the government to encroach in the privacy of its citizens.


Some critics have recalled that President Obama actively campaigned against George W. Bush when the former president decided to invade Iraq as a part of the war against terror. Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq ten years ago is seen as contradictory with the president’s staunch defense of the intelligence policies that led to the encroachment on people’s privacy under his administration.  The apparent policy switch by Obama is seen as deceiving and unworthy of a liberal president.    However, those critics are wrong.  Obama did oppose the war in Iraq, but not the war in Afghanistan.  Obama spoke against the loosely defined concept of “war on terror”, but as a candidate, he embraced policies that would make the U.S. safer against future terrorist attacks.  


Thus, it is wrong to equate Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq with hostility to policies designed to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. In fact, Obama’s actions as president underline his commitment to engaging in active policies to prevent future attacks.  The president has long supported policies—such as the use of drones to kill enemy combatants, and even American citizens, outside the United States or the delayed closure of the Guantanamo military base—that show a real concern with preventing terrorist attacks in American territory.  The way President Obama personally managed the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, including the unusual Sunday night televised speech the night bin Laden was gunned down, also underline how national security has been one of his main priorities during his time in the White House.


In part, Obama’s focus on national security results from the fact that Americans in general believe that Republicans are more concerned—and better able—to protect the country against foreign attacks.  The democratic president needed to work on that vulnerable point for democrats by minimizing that liability.  The fact that national security was not a defining issue in the last presidential campaign speaks to the success of the Obama administration in strengthening its national security credentials.


The recent controversy initially reported by The Guardian, a British newspaper, has put the issue of national security back on the agenda. Not surprisingly, most liberal voices—and many democrats—have expressed their concern over the loss of privacy in the name of preventing future terrorist attacks.  Among the strongest democratic base, the revelations about the encroachment of privacy have not fared well.  Liberals are discontent and dissatisfied with Obama.  However, among moderates and even Republicans, there is no question as to what side to favor when it comes to the security/privacy tradeoff.   For Republicans, security is far more important than privacy.  For moderates, intrusions in privacy are justified if they lead to significant improvements in the government’s ability to make the country a safer place.  


Though the president’s approval has suffered as a result of the revelations, Obama has lost more support among liberals than among moderates and conservatives.  As liberals have no other place to go—and will continue to prefer Democrats over Republicans—the long term electoral costs for Obama and the democrats are limited.  The controversy has dominated the political agenda and has slowed down the government’s legislative initiatives—with immigration reform suffering the most. The White House has been put on the defensive and the few weeks remaining before the Congressional summer recess will be far less productive than President Obama counted on.


However, when he publicly acknowledged the existence of the program and justified it on ground that preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S. requires a tradeoff between security and privacy, President Obama took a position that makes perfect sense to a large majority of Americans.