What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?

  • jarober

    For anyone paying attention, all of the things you decry were pretty obvious traits of the man before he was ever elected. As part of the media, you were one of the many who declined to give the public any reporting on that. So my sympathy for your sudden realization is pretty low. A column like this back in 2008 would have been a lot more useful for everyone.

  • jarober

    Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear enough – go investigate how he won each of his previous elections. They were all character assassinations – on involving access to sealed records. Did you – or any other people in the media, for that matter – see fit to report on that sort of thing? Or ponder what it meant that one of his closest associates was Jeremiah Wright? Of course not, none of that fit the narrative. For someone who’s written so much on Google, it might not have killed you to use it a bit on the President sometime before this year.

    • The Man With No Name As A Name

      He also won by getting his opponents knocked off the ballot.

    • DarcyRochester

      Or maybe he won by getting more votes — lots more votes — than John McCain and Mitt Romney. Not that hard to figure out.

  • Kevin Selle

    Jeff, this is all rhetoric until the fundamental problem of the two party system is fixed. We are stuck between warring sides that are are invested in making sure nothing changes. Democrats are a more monolithic group which means they are better at organizing, also making it harder for them to separate. If you really want to have an impact and have a chance at real change start breaking the deadlock. There are three branches of government for a reason!

  • Wilfried Schock

    a foreign view: I stopped to think about america as an friend to our (german) nation. Now it is hard to feel as an ally, be treated like an potential enemy. Our goverment try to keep this case on lowest possible level, but the number of people starting to rethink their point of view about our relationship with the united states is still growing this way.
    Obama wants and needs a free trade zone with EU more than the EU needs it. I am not sure that this is the right time and situation to get such an common thing between USA and EU.

    • PetePatriot

      Mr. Shock wrote, “Obama wants and needs a free trade zone with EU more than the EU needs it.” Obama is an economic illiterate. I have no love for Obama, but trade is another matter.

      US trade deficit with Germany in 2012: $60,000,000,000.


      US trade deficit with the EU in 2012: $116,000,000,000


      Would he like to rethink that statement?

      Furthermore, let us remember that Mohamed Atta and 7 other 9/11 hijackers hatched their plot in Hamburg, Germany. The US (and Germany) should have every radical Muslim in Germany under surveillance.

      • Wilfried Schock

        I agree your point of view concerning radical Muslims. 9/11 – the services have had enough informations to avoid this but failed because they could not handle data. More data does not look like an appropriate solution to me.

        I do not agree, that trade is an other matter. In my point of view the matter is about relationsship between nations. Trade is one important part of that. Spying on people as well as at corporations and economic competitions of US firms does not support good relations.
        Through economy is the motor of national wealth and power, it is fairly not reasonable to exclude it from political business.

        If a nation wants to establish better relations in trade to an other nation it is not agreeable to act like the people of this nation are potential enemies in general, as well as economic espionage is welcome.

        I am not concerned about Mr. Obama. He turns out to be his strongest problem an his terms will be over soon. I am more concerned about the general direction the USA ist drifting.
        From the light of freedom to the example of failure in securing freedom is a smaller step than we might believe. In Europe an especially in Germany we have learned this the hard way. This experience surely gives us different point of views. In our experience democracy is in substantial danger if the secret services are going out of control. Terroirsm is the onslaught on free society. Reducing freedom means doing the Terrorists job. Argueing that is neccessary to provide freedom in my point of view ist online a proof of incompetence or much worse intentions.

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  • PetePatriot

    Since the producers of the world don’t voluntarily submit to income redistribution, collectivism has to be imposed by an overly powerful state. It should come as no surprise to anyone that such a state would find it necessary to collect personal information as a means of asserting control.

    Obama’s impulses much more mirror Fidel Castro than George Washington. Leftists love to point out Cuba’s free education and free healthcare (you get what you pay for), yet they conveniently overlook the paid informants in every neighborhood and the political prisoners. The only thing equalized is the poverty.

    The theory is nice but the practice is a horse of a different color. This is what a fundamental transformation looks like. Every government agency under Obama was harnessed in his reelection effort. All these agencies have their very own SWAT teams. When Fish and Wildlife’s SWAT team descends on a guitar factory with loaded automatic weapons because the owner is a Republican, America has a problem.

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  • RichardAubrey

    Mr. J. You presume Obama wants what you want. Isn’t that sort of childish? Magical thinking or something?
    Do you have something which proves Obama wants what you want?

    • Randy Martens

      I agree with you, Richard, and maintain that it was childish non-thinking on a mass basis that got Obama elected in the first place. Americans are more and more falling into fantasy-based reasoning – and we see evidence of this all around the culture. Perhaps much of it is due to the influence of the entertainment industry, which produces fantasies by the score (computer games, movies, television shows, etc.), which DO have a cumulative impact on people’s thinking, especially the young. Note how Hollywood in general overwhelmingly supported Obama. Objective truths aren’t democratic in nature – they can’t be voted out of office just because we don’t like them. Let’s face it, factual reality just isn’t popular anymore, and we are ignoring it to our eventual destruction.

      • Guest

        It wasn’t magical thinking, it was pragmatism. I voted for Obama twice, because the alternative was too scary to deal with. McCain was fine, but he was old and I didn’t want that dip Palin anywhere near the White House. And Romney was just a corporate tool, who needed to stay with his polo ponies where he couldn’t do any damage (like wage war with Iran and/or Syria).
        I am disappointed with Obama, but I do NOT regret my votes. He was the lesser of two evils, both times. The alternatives would have been been worse.

        If Jon Huntsman had been the Republican nominee, I would have voted for him over Obama. But he was too intelligent and “moderate” for the GOP.

  • Terence Dodge

    I voted the this man. He is an authoritarian President, if the moderate republicans ( may the rest in peace ) wanted an other than white skin representative in the office they could not have asked for more. Young republicans rejoice. Obama is human, and has all the foibles of one, those playing the 19th Century “race card” ( science, north of the creationist “Mason-Dixion” line does not recognize black people, people is people with genetic detail differences ).

    • Linda

      THAT is your best defense of him? YOU sir are playing the race card. We are playing the integrity card. He is a power monger and does not care how long it takes or by one route he will get total control and revamp America. Mark MY words, HE has another plan up his sleeve, one no one is discussing…. that is to get re-elected for a third term. He will make a way, and make it look like it wasn’t even his idea.

      • Guest

        Name me one president since George Washington who was NOT a “power monger.” They wouldn’t be elected otherwise.
        Go ahead. I’ll wait.

  • edkless

    Brilliant, just brilliant.

    Mr. Jarvis, while I come from a Libertarian perspective, I am overwhelmed and indebted to you for this piece. I did not vote for Mr. Obama (I didn’t vote for McCain or Romney either), but I did believe in his message of hope and change with regard to civil liberties.

    I believed he would close Gitmo (“first thing”) and was disappointed. But, this… this… revolting support of the NSA and the complete destruction of the Fourth Amendment is beyond anything I could have imagined.

  • Randy Martens

    Never mind what Obama is thinking, Mr. Jarvis – the far more foundational question is what are YOU thinking!

    Sorry, but it’s a little too late now for all the whiny hand-wringing rhetoric! The fact is a majority of folks like YOU voted for this ideologically-driven utter amateur – twice now – based to a large extent, no matter your claims to the contrary, on vague yet fine-sounding slogans like “Change!” and other meaningless chants like “Yes We Can!” without really ever having given much thought as to what HE and all the social engineering elites supporting him actually meant by them!

    America is a republic, a representative democracy, so you got what YOU voted for. And both in 2008 and 2012 voters like you and journalists of all the major media outlets essentially gave this guy a free pass by not continually asking him the hard, relevant questions which would have eventually began penetrating to the actual realities lurking behind all the inauthentic campaign sloganeering and canned talking points.

    But here’s the saddest part of all: you and voters like you will refuse to learn from your mistakes, and in 2016, very predictably, will jump on the emotional bandwagon once again and vote for yet another incompetent “leader” who will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get your vote, yet once elected will widen even further America’s path to self-induced destruction.

    So don’t despair, Mr. Jarvis, as you’ll most likely get your chance to finally cast your ballot for Hillary, probably America’s next political messiah!

    You write of an “informed citizenry.” Surely you realize that’s the LAST thing politicians like Obama want. An informed citizenry actually THINKS beyond the mind-numbing slogans! An informed citizenry asks intelligent and incisive questions, and keeps on doing so, of a candidate BEFORE voting them into the most powerful political office on earth, not afterwards! This is the whole point of an informed citizenry, as the Founders told you.

    So for these and many other reasons I find your article rings a bit hollow.

    • Guest

      Hillary Clinton can’t be a messiah because, as any conservative in any religion will tell you, girls can’t be messiahs. That’s just the way it is.
      You’ll have to figure out something else to call her. I’m sure it will be classy.

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  • The Man With No Name As A Name

    ” I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater”

    Meanwhile, my response was to stop flying because my 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were being violated as part of this “security theater”.

    Your “applause” for measures that were, at best, meaningless and wasted — and at worst abuses of the rights of free Americans — helped set the stage for the all-encompassing snooping you now decry. It was justified by the same mindset that saw babies and geezers with artificial limbs as a threat to an airplane.

    Maybe if you had raised the alarm bells earlier (like when the TSA was groping the first grannies) we might take your late laments more seriously.

    Outcries over the TSA “porno-scanners” at airports by the public helped get that particularly invasive bit of snooping overreach curtailed. Did you join in? Can’t recall your involvement…

    And yes, the authoritarian streak in Barack Obama was clear as day to anyone who cared to look during his national rise to power. But, for the most part, America’s media didn’t want to look. As a journalist, you were part of the group that forgot your constitutionally-enshrined duty to be watchdogs for the public over those with power.

    You were just another one of the lapdogs. Now he has hit you with the newspaper and you are yipping. But, he knows the press still won’t bite him. He has nothing to fear, unlike a Richard Nixon who the press properly drove out of office. He can be more Nixon that Nixon now.

    What is the press going to do about now?

    It is good you have finally seen the light, but the damage is done. Freedoms lost are hard to reclaim.

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  • RV

    Jarvis’ First Law – hand the people the control or lose us.

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