Obama's spy scandal

The Orange County RegisterJuly 15, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Orange County Register on Saturday, July 12:

It's always been easy and risk-free to accuse an administration of negligence. Unlike malice or recklessness, negligence is easy to allege because it's hard to know it when you see it. The bureaucracy is big and unwieldy; if a president always knew everything that went on in Washington, he'd be some kind of terrifying tyrant or super-computer.

Nevertheless, when you do see a glaring sign of negligence, it's often a strong indicator that there's a pattern of sloppy ignorance to be found elsewhere.

Such is the case with President Barack Obama and the burgeoning spy scandal in Germany. Astonishingly, it's not Russia or China where we're ensnared in an embarrassingly public spat over CIA activity. It's our close allies in Berlin who are outraged over the pursuit of not one but two alleged spies in the upper echelons of the German defense and intelligence ministries.

On our shores, the most outrageous aspect of the kerfuffle is that Obama had no idea, apparently, that all this was going on. This is a president who must now confront claims that the U.S. has been tapping the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - and then try to address the world's business with her over the phone.

Now, Merkel is kicking America's top spy out of her country. In recent years, not all Americans have been captivated by red-meat Republican charges that Obama mistreats our allies. That's now likely to change.

But the bigger picture is even more significant than the workings of partisan politics. Obama's humiliation over the spy ordeal is a cautionary tale about the perils of unbound federal power.

Almost everyone agrees that a robust spy operation is important to the national security and national interest of the United States. Obama, however, has overseen an unprecedented explosion in surveillance and clandestine monitoring - not just in the U.S., but abroad.

Defenders of the National Security Agency and other agencies have urged Americans to accept the idea that some reductions in liberty are worth the gains that blanket intelligence-gathering earns us. But operations conducted by unaccountable bureaucrats have a tendency - long demonstrated in more prosaic domestic affairs - to erupt into unintended consequences that undermine our policy objectives.

Just so, in Germany, our surveillance-run-wild created a climate of suspicion and antagonism that directly fueled Berlin's fury over the CIA's schemes. Rather than an isolated incident or two, carried out by an agency with a notoriously long leash, the scandal is becoming a proverbial straw to break the camel's back - just the latest in a sequence of abuses of confidence, trust and alliance.

Instead of lashing out at the handful of individuals at the CIA who blew their operations, Germans are lashing out at the vast, impersonal surveillance machine that decided to vacuum up information belonging to everyone from Chancellor Merkel to American citizens themselves.

Germans aren't alone in this regard. They're joined by millions around the world and right here at home. Obama can't possibly wish for that fury, distrust and distaste to define his legacy. He'd better do something about it - before the task falls to the next president.

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