June 16th, 2013

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The "One-Way Rachet" of Executive Power: Was Cheney Right About Obama?

After Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President but before he took the oath of office, Vice-President Dick Cheney gave an exit interview to Rush Limbaugh. Under George W. Bush, Cheney was the architect, along with his legal counsel, David Addington, of a dramatic expansion of executive authority—a power grab that Obama criticized, fiercely, on the campaign trail, and promised to “reverse.” But when Limbaugh inquired about this criticism Cheney swatted it aside, saying, “My guess is that, once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, they will appreciate some of the things we’ve put in place.”

I was reminded of that line during last week’s revelations about mass-surveillance programs administered by the National Security Agency. When Cheney said it, the remark struck me as cynical and self-serving. Now it seems prescient. Many observers have lamented Obama’s war on leaks—which has been distinguished by an unprecedented number of prosecutions—suggesting that there is some hypocrisy in a President who, having promised to roll back Bush’s “policy of secrecy,” has devoted his time in office to the merciless pursuit of whistle-blowers.

But the hypocrisy may run deeper than that: Obama built his political identity as a national leader on revulsion at the excesses of the Bush years. Yet, from warrantless wiretapping and torture to dodgy intelligence in Iraq, he knew the full extent of those excesses because of unauthorized disclosures to the press. Without leaks, Barack Obama might never have been elected to begin with.

Among those who took Obama the candidate at his word, and then found themselves sorely disappointed when he assumed office, was, it seems, Edward Snowden, a private contractor for the National Security Agency. Snowden, who gave a trove of classified documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post, said yesterday that he had watched, in dismay, “as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.”
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