Obama's NSA reform trap, and how he'll try to escape

Obama speech
(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

I tend not to see every presidential policy speech as legacy-defining, but Friday's speech might just fit the bill. Obama has used his second term to review and claw back the advancing national security state that he endorsed and expanded when he took office. I've written this before, but he really does not want to be known as the president who enshrined indefinite detention of terrorism suspects into law, or who abused the state secrets privilege, or who allowed the surveillance state to run amok. Geoffrey Stone, a law school colleague of Obama's who also served on his intelligence review panel, told me a long time ago that Obama, in his core, viewed himself as a champion of civil liberties and would be disappointed in himself if he did not leave a legacy of having advanced the ball down the field. To put it another way, Obama does care whether Americans perceive him to be a defender of their liberties.

Obama also cares about world opinion. In much the same way, although not to the degree, that George W. Bush did not want Muslims around the world to see themselves as the objects of his war on terrorism, Obama does not want the average person in the developing world to see himself as a legitimate target of American surveillance. If Obama changes the rules about targeting foreigners, he'll do so not because he believes that non-Americans deserve the same protections as Americans, but because he believes that it is not in America's interests for the average person around the world to be afraid of, or to have a reason to distrust, America and its actions.

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