Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 22, 2009

President Obama’s National Security Balancing Act

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on May 22, 2009

The “national security debate” that the U.S. “never had during last year’s campaign…” is how the Washington Post portrayed yesterday’s speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Cheney.  Philip Palin has given a good overview and his assessment of Mr. Cheney’s speech earlier today.

In his speech, President Obama took a peculiar position for a “debate,” he carefully stayed in the “middle.”  It was the middle because his position was light on facts. It was the middle because it contained broad policy strokes and oration. And it was the middle because it equally criticized the opposite sides of the national security spectrum debate.

For example, the President was highly critical of those who” who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and would almost never put national security over transparency” and “those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words:  ‘Anything goes.'”  To both he made it clear that while they may be sincere,  “neither side is right.”

So what did he say was right? There were several broad policy strokes. For example, he laid a handful of priorities  -most of which have been previously circulated and analyzed – including:

  • Banning the use of enhanced torture techniques, which he said undermines the rule of law, increases terrorist recruitment, and endangers our soliders;
  • Closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay;
  • Reforming the military commissions;
  • Declassifying information and inviting more oversight;
  • Revising the legal regime for dealing with terrorists; and
  • Narrowing the use of state secret privilege.

In identifying these priorities yet not disclosing the specifics on how they would be accomplished, the President portrayed national security as a balancing act. The pundits and press, to date, portrayed this as a defensive approach that did not provide enough to win over votes or support in Congress.  The question,however, is whether the speech was intended to be overly- detailed and wonkish or to bring together these priorities and ideas in one place to move forward the debate.  I perceived it was the latter, especially in light of his statement that “we will constantly reevaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from other branches of government, as well as the public.” (As an aside, there was a nod -whether intentional or not – to Franklin D. Roosevelt in that comment.  When I heard that line, it reminded me of this quote from FDR, “we have to do the best we know how at the moment… if it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.”)

More interesting, however, is whether the President can be the first to portray national security as a balancing act and actually succeed.  Since 9/11, the portrayal of any “balancing” of security with rights or transparency have resulted in security (or at least what is perceived as security) being more weighty and necessary than the other issues.  There has been some discussion of how the values are not contrary or balancing but reinforcing.  President Obama spoke to that point while also speaking of the balancing act. It was an honest assessment of the state of security, rights, and transparency values, but one that brings challenges of its own.

One last point —  in its final report, the Gilmore Commission(Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction), warned that “governments must look ahead at the unintended consequences of policies in the quiet of the day instead of the crisis of the moment.”  In the rhetoric and speeches of yesterday – this is what I took away as the point being debated.   And one that will continue as the above-mentioned priorities’ implementation unfolds.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 22, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

Jessica’s post is very insightful. Protection of the national security of the United States is certainly partially in the eye of the beholder. But certain first principles also apply. For example, the Constitution exists and cannot be waived even by a President. Clearly this debate is helpful in the ultimate understanding of the issues and tradeoffs in protecting our country and to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. The bias against legal counsel in the national security community even extends to the fact that the AG is not a statutory member of the NSC. Former Senator Fritz Hollings got the U.S. Senate within one vote of adding the AG. Only Bobby Kennedy and Ed Meese were made Ex Officio members of the NSC. Many NSC documents and policies and those of the Intel community don’t undergo any legal review. What perhaps is interesting is that the career JAG lawyers in the ARMED FORCES did the best of moderating the desire to torture and find out the “Truth” at all costs. This development is relatively new to the Armed Forces but clearly was worth a lot in speaking “Truth to Power.”

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