What Happens When A President You Don’t Trust Has These Powers?

Even if you trust the current occupant of the White House to exercise the powers granted to the agencies operating in secret under him, do you trust all future Presidents?

White Hosue Daytime

I’ve heard many defenders of the NSA’s data mining activities state that those of us expressing concern over the scope of their activities are needlessly worried because there’s no evidence that those powers are being misused. As a starting premise, let’s take  that assertion, which has been made by both Republicans and Democrats, as being true. Let’s even assume that the intentions of the people who were conducting these activities, and the people in positions of authority over them, acted out of entirely benign motives and were convinced that what they were doing was for the good of the country.  Even if all of that is true, there are still reasons to be concerned about what the NSA has been doing in our name, the authority that the law and the courts have granted that agency and others under the purview of the Executive Branch, and the kind of data that they are able to easily access. In the end, legality and benign motives are only half the question that faces us. The other half of the question is, even if you trust the current President and those under him to exercise these powers, will you also trust all future Presidents?

History has taught us that powers assumed by one Administration will be used and enhanced by their successors. The most recent example of that, of course, is the extent to which the Obama Administration has built upon the authority assumed by the Bush Administration in the name of the “war on terror” and, indeed, built upon it significantly. No doubt, whoever happens to follow President Obama will do the same thing, as will their successor. This has been the pattern of American history for some time now, and there’s no reason to believe it will change any time soon unless Congress and the Courts step in to try to reign in the Imperial Presidency, which seems unlikely.

Working largely from that immutable fact of history, Kevin Drum makes this point about the NSA’s data collection practices:

I find it quite likely that NSA isn’t currently abusing the phone surveillance program. They really and truly don’t care about Occupy Wall Street. They care about Al Qaeda, and that’s where their focus is. But who cares? Programs like this often start with good intentions. The problem is that this kind of indefinite data collection makes abuse far more likely in the future. Someday there will be a different president in the White House, there will be a different head of NSA, and there will be different professionals running the program. What will they do with all that data the next time something happens that makes America crazy for a few years? I don’t know, but I do know that if they don’t have the data in the first place they can’t abuse it.

(…)

Even if NSA’s programs haven’t been abused yet, that doesn’t mean they’re okay. Likewise, even if they haven’t produced any great benefits yet, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid and useless. It’s the future that matters.

Citing mostly the inevitability of a future Republican Presidency, Paul Waldman shares similar concerns:

[Y]ou may not want to believe it, but there will be another Republican president, probably pretty soon. If not in 2016, then in 2020 or at the very, very latest 2024. And when President Paul Ryan or whoever takes office and meets with his national security team, what he’ll say is, “Let’s see here. I can get every American’s phone records, I can read their emails, I can send drones out to kill an American citizen anywhere in the world if I decide that person is a threat, and hell, I can even start a little war without bothering to get Congress’ permission if I want to. I’ll certainly be using these powers with restraint—ha ha!”

And don’t forget that when that next Republican president does come along, his administration is going to be stocked to the gills with people who worked for George W. Bush, just because that’s how things work in Washington. If you’re a Republican seeking to fill those thousands of executive branch positions, the Republicans who have the necessary experience will be Bushies, just as many of the people Obama appointed had worked for Bill Clinton. Dick Cheney himself may not be there (although I suspect that within a few years Cheney will be turned into a horrifying General Grievous-like cyborg11 Though it’s true that one of Grievous’ only remaining organic parts was his heart, leaving him vulnerable to a well-placed shot from a blaster, and of course that won’t be an issue with Cheney, so there might be a place for him). But you can bet that many of the people who carried out Bush and Cheney’s instructions will be enthusiastically looking to exploit every ounce of power they have, and a few they don’t have but think they might be able to get away with using anyway.

Maybe you feel like you can live with that, and there are enough safeguards in place that even the next Dick Cheney couldn’t abuse them too terribly. But the argument of the administration right now is that they’re gathering all this information, but they aren’t abusing it. They aren’t just looking through people’s records willy-nilly; mostly all this information is just there waiting, and they look at an individual’s records only once they have reason to suspect they might be connected to something fishy. But it isn’t because they can’t, it’s because, they say, they’ve chosen not to. And that may well be true. But is the next administration, and the one after that, going to do the same?

This, you would think, is the lesson that Republicans are learning today. The very policies that they supported when George W. Bush was President and when the PATRIOT Act was overwhelmingly passed by bipartisan majorities in both Houses of Congress are now being utilized by a President that most Republicans have disliked since the day he won the election. While there remains a core of Republicans on Capitol Hill who are supporting the NSA’s activities that have come to light, it seems quite apparent right now that the conservative base is opposed to it. However, it seems rather clear that their opposition is based more on who happens to be in the Oval Office than the nature of the activity itself. That can be the only rational explanation for the fact that wide majorities of Republicans supported the same activities when they were being done under the authority of President Bush. You can see the same clearly partisan reactions in the opposite direction from Democrats.

This strikes me as both unhealthy and unfortunate. When it comes to something as important and far reaching as Presidential power and the authority of Executive agencies to collect data regarding the activities of American citizens, it shouldn’t matter who’s in office. As I noted above, it isn’t as if these powers are going to disappear once the person currently sitting behind the Resolute Desk flies off into retirement. They’re going to stay there, and some day they may fall into the hands of people who, under the right set of circumstances, will be able to find a way to use those powers against the American people. Some will respond to such a hypothetical by saying that it can’t happen here. Perhaps that’s true. I would certainly hope that it is. However, when we’re talking about handing over immense power to the President, you have to take into power that some day, that power will be misused. Because if and when that day does arrive, it will be too late to do anything about it.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Intelligence, Law and the Courts, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What Happens When A President You Don’t Trust Has These Powers?

    What is happening now. And what happened with the last President. And the one before him.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    It’s already happened — remember this program started under Bush the Younger.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    The POTUS has an army and an FBI. It has always and will always matter who holds the office. They have a great deal of power. PRISM is what terrifies us? Not nukes?

  4. Barry says:

    Kevin: “I find it quite likely that NSA isn’t currently abusing the phone surveillance program. They really and truly don’t care about Occupy Wall Street. They care about Al Qaeda, and that’s where their focus is. ”

    Kevin still has some elements of stupidity about how the world works. I’ll bet that the NSA is quite interested in OWS. They’ll hate them on a personal level, and also know that information about OWS is good trading material with police forces, the FBI and such.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: This country has a long tradition of intimidating, harrasing, imprisoning and assassinating those the government finds troublesome. Yeah, I worry about surveillance a lot more than nuclear weapons, because one is much more likely than the other.

  6. Tony W says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    one is much more likely than the other

    This is largely because of its benign status to most of an intentionally-distracted country. Not so with the nukes…

  7. Sam Malone says:

    Um…have you forgotten Bush43, Doug?
    The guy that lied about WMD and Niger Yellow Cake and sent 4000 troops to their death and spent trillions of dollars so China could buy oil from Iraq?
    Yeah…that Bush43.

  8. @Ben Wolf:

    Yeah, I worry about surveillance a lot more than nuclear weapons, because one is much more likely than the other.

    The type of surveillance counts.

  9. Rafer Janders says:

    History has taught us that powers assumed by one Administration will be used and enhanced by their successors.

    Actually, history has taught us that powers assumed by one Administration will be abused by their successors.

  10. stonetools says:

    So POTUS is an office clothed with “immense power” as Abe Lincoln said. Means we should be careful to elect a good one, for starters. I agree with Michael. If we are OK with the President launching global thermonuclear war, then PRISM doesn’t seem a stretch.
    The people have agreed for a LOONG time , dating back to the Civil War, that the President should have power to conduct clandestine surveillance of enemies, foreign and domestic. The current powers were voted on by Congress and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. The President exercises these powers under the supervision of both Congress and the courts.Now there is room here to talk about increasing oversight and making the exercise of surveillance powers more transparent.
    But if you were to argue does that the government should have no power to to conduct electronic surveillance at all, then most people would reject that. Now Doug, that seems to be what you, Snowden, and Greenwald are saying. If you are not saying that, then what are you saying? What specific reforms do you have in mind. In all your many posts on the topic, I haven’t heard any specific proposals. I suggest you stop trying to scare us and make some.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, his successors have not. FDR rounded up Japanese-Americans. Nixon imposed wage and price controls.

    I’m not arguing that we don’t need limits on executive power. But I’d like to see acknowledgment that not all slopes end up being slippery.

    And we need to understand that we civilians have gained very substantial countervailing powers. For example, during the McCarthy era people had almost no ability to make their case publicly after being accused of being a ‘red.’ That’s different now. Accuse me of being a red now and five minutes later I can have my version of events out via blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

    1984 is not more likely today, it is far less likely. Central authority’s actual power has diminished relative to the individual. Paranoia can do as much damage as passivity.

  12. Caj says:

    As much as I trust completely President Obama with these powers, I certainly wouldn’t put my trust in every president. Look where the last one got us! Into a war we had no business being in!

  13. Jen says:

    This sort of question baffles me. It assumes that the agencies are full of mindless automatons who simply follow whomever is in office. The simple fact is this: every one of the intelligence agencies is full of many people with varying political affiliations. The heads of these agencies change with the president (and with the advice and consent of the Senate), but the rank and file are career employees who are under extreme pressure to protect US.

    The setup is checks and balances. The employees are checks and balances. I know it’s popular to bash civil servants, but I’m willing to believe that the vast majority of them really want to do their jobs well and with respect for the law. My issue is with the amount of this we’ve turned over to largely unaccountable private firms–THAT, clearly, is where the problems exist.

  14. Tillman says:

    What Happens When A President You Don’t Trust Has These Powers?

    I’ll probably say he wasn’t born here and start delegitimizing him in everyday social interaction.

  15. Tillman says:

    To the meat of the question, it strikes me as inevitable that some kind of surveillance like this was going to arise. Hell, everyone I’ve talked to who’s been following government expansion with any scrutiny isn’t really surprised by any of these revelations. I told one friend of mine who hadn’t been following the news lately in favor of college sports, and she replied with a pretty dull “hasn’t that been going on for a while now?”

    This stuff is old hat. Bigger scale, more efficient due to technology, but nothing new. If anything, it just demonstrates how naive the populace has been about latent technological progress beyond what games they can get for their iPads.

  16. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: “Lincoln suspended habeas corpus,”

    He suspended habeas corpus under the Andrew Jackson precedent from the Battle of New Orleans (including jailing the judge who tried to issue the writ), an act that would later be formally approved by an act of Congress that reimbursed Jackson the $1k fine he had to pay, and written of admiringly by Justice [Traitor] Taney in one of his Supreme Court opinions. While at the time there were principled legal opinions either way on whether the President had emergency authority to suspend the Writ when Congress was not in session, I think the general historic consensus is the same, the Democrats supported strong executive action when their guy was in power and vice versa.

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    I am 67 years old and can’t think of any President I have trusted. That NSA stuff is here to stay. bin Laden has won – the United States of America is not what it was prior to 9/11 and never will be again.

  18. stonetools says:

    What Happens When A President You Don’t Trust Has These Powers?

    The eventual remedy is elections…

  19. Jack says:

    @Jen:

    The employees are checks and balances. I know it’s popular to bash civil servants, but I’m willing to believe that the vast majority of them really want to do their jobs well and with respect for the law.

    Well apparently this check and balance broke down and that’s why the civil servants in the IRS targeted Conservative groups–because of their respect for the law and all.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I don’t think I’ve been partisan in either supporting or opposing executive powers. For example, I supported the drone war under both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama. Similarly, I opposed torture under Mr. Bush and would oppose it if Mr. Obama intended to use it.

    I just honestly do not think PRISM is a very big deal.

  21. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: I don’t think you’ve been partisan on national security issues. I want to know if PRISM is now moot because the basic parameters have been disclosed. I think Obama for reasons of risk-avoidance does more than he ought, whereas Bush for desire to be a transitional President took more risks than he ought. But for me, its a matter of degree, so I don’t think I fit well in the ideological frameworks.

    I also think it might be possible that Snowden performed a useful function, for which he should serve jailtime. Still thinking about it though.

  22. Barry says:

    @Jen: “The heads of these agencies change with the president (and with the advice and consent of the Senate), but the rank and file are career employees who are under extreme pressure to protect US.

    The setup is checks and balances. The employees are checks and balances. I know it’s popular to bash civil servants, but I’m willing to believe that the vast majority of them really want to do their jobs well and with respect for the law. ”

    Please look at the previous administration’s fraudulent selling and incompetent conduct of a war, and then say that there are checks and balances.

  23. Kari Q says:

    @stonetools:

    Except that no candidate from either party is going to give up these kinds of powers. Sure, we could keep trading party A for party B, but for civil liberties it’s strictly a matter of how quickly they disappear.

  24. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    The country almost elected Uncle Ruckus and Sarah May Havingdonenothing.

    But, really? How bad could it get?