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?