It is a fragile thing, trust. It can take years to build up and yet it can be lost in a breathtakingly short time. When it comes to government, loss of trust can harm the functioning of our democracy for years to come. That appears to be one of the legacies that Barack Obama is building for himself, and the reason why the series of scandals that has greeted his second term is so harmful.
Behind each one of them is the image of the federal government lying to the American people. When the attack in Benghazi resulted in the death of the US Ambassador and three others, senior government officials – not just Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows, but Secretary Clinton, Press Secretary Carney, the President himself – maintained for weeks that the proximate issue was a reckless video that incited a mob to lethal action. Regardless of who framed the famous “talking points,” the result for the most disinterested observer was that the government maintained a fiction about a terrorist attack.
This obfuscation held more than election-season consequences. The new Libyan Prime Minister, who accurately called the incident an act of terror on the same Sunday talk circuit, was so incensed at being essentially called a liar that he hindered the FBI crime scene investigators from visiting the site. The perpetrators are walking free to this day, despite President Obama’s vow not to rest until justice is done for Chris Stevens and the others.
It gets worse from there. With the IRS targeting of conservative groups, citizens were confronted with the prospect of a feared but heretofore apolitical bureaucracy taking sides in a Presidential contest. And again, there were lies. At first it was rogue agents in Cincinnati, then there was evidence that the effort was led from Washington. The acting director denied under oath that any targeting had taken place, then recanted. Lois Lerner, in charge of the group that monitored the tax-exempt applications insisted she did no wrong, then took the Fifth in congressional testimony.
One sure way to undermine trust in the government is to have its very engines trample on the First Amendment rights of certain individuals chosen not at random but by a systematic search of their political persuasions. Nor was this done in a vacuum – all through the summer and fall of 2012, President Obama was warning darkly of unsavory political advocacy groups, possibly funded with illegal foreign money, operating in the shadows. Small wonder the IRS thought they were on solid ground in focusing on Tea Party groups.
Speaking of trampling on the First Amendment, the Justice Department gave their own rendition in the wholesale sweeping of journalists’ phone records in an effort to identify leakers of confidential information. This was an infraction grave enough even to get a rise out of the President’s amen chorus in the mainstream media. It may, in fact, mark the point at which Obama begins to be held to normal standards of scrutiny.
And it went further than mere phone sweeps: Fox reporter James Rosen was named as a possible co-conspirator in a security leak investigation, in an affidavit to a federal judge asking for his specific phone conversations. And the lies: Attorney General Eric Holder testified that targeting a journalist for possible prosecution was not something he had “heard of, or discussed,” when in fact the opposite was true, and it was his signature on the affidavit.
Now we come to the NSA meta-data scandal. This, I think, is something of a different order from the others. Personally, I believe it is OK for the government to be able to sift through the millions of phone links that take place daily looking for patterns that might warrant closer examination – as long as that closer look is authorized by the FISA court. The fact that senior legislators from both parties have supported this program, that it has been known about for years, and that it has, according to testimony, been responsible for dozens of foiled terror plots, gives me some comfort.
But only some comfort, and this is the problem. If we had a government that we felt could be trusted with such masses of private information, this would not be such an issue. But the long list of trust-destroying actions taken by this government over the last few years has made the public wary even of those programs where no abuse has even been alleged. The mistrust is bolstered by yet more lies: James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, swore under oath that we did not collect mass quantities of data about people’s communications, later describing it as the “least untruthful” answer he could give.
We don’t trust the government to protect its diplomats and tell the truth about it; we don’t trust it to protect our First Amendment rights; we don’t trust it to tell us the truth about so many things, and yet we are supposed to trust it holding huge quantities of data about our daily lives and communications, potentially listening in on what we innocently think are private conversations.
President Obama recognized the dilemma, and said about ten days ago that we need to have a “national conversation” about the appropriate balance between security and privacy in an age of terrorism and high-tech vulnerabilities. That’s fine and good, but after saying that, he has largely been silent. The national conversation has been played out among partisans and the commentariat, without the President lending it his gravitas. If we are to come to a consensus, this is not the most promising way to get there.
It calls for leadership. Instead of leadership, we get more partisanship: the President today insisted that the NSA program is OK because, well, he’s not Dick Cheney. Which is to say, “you can trust me, but don’t let the Republicans get hold of these tools.”
Well, judging from his government’s achievements of the last year or so, his claim on our trust looks a bit over-optimistic.