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This will be Obama’s enduring legacy

The effort to wire the world — or to achieve “extreme reach,” in the NRO’s parlance — has cost American taxpayers more than $100 billion. Obama has justified the gargantuan expense by arguing that “there are some trade-offs involved” in keeping the country safe. “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said in June 2013, shortly after Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed widespread government spying on Americans’ phone calls.

Since Snowden’s leaks, pundits and experts (myself included) have debated the legality and ethics of the U.S. surveillance apparatus. Yet has the president’s blueprint for spying succeeded on its own terms? An examination of the unprecedented architecture reveals that the Obama administration may only have drowned itself in data. What’s more, in trying to right the ship, America’s intelligence culture has grown frenzied. Agencies are ever seeking to get bigger, move faster, and pry deeper to keep pace with the enormous quantity of information being generated the world over and with the new tactics and technologies intended to shield it from spies.

This race is a defining feature of Obama’s legacy — and one that threatens to become never-ending, even after he’s left the White House.

James Bamford (£)

35 comments to This will be Obama’s enduring legacy

  • Chester Draws

    I’m not happy with Obama’s legacy here, but it’s not significantly different from what GW Bush did. Nor are there many politicians from the Republicans arguing he spending too much on surveillance or breaking too many rules.

    Nor will Trump pull back. I know some here think he’s the saviour, but his statements and actions suggest a man prepared to a) break rules of civilised behaviour and b) pay any amount the security and defence agencies ask for.

  • PhilB

    There is a book called The Forever War about using conventional military forces to fight terrorism. The cyber data collection for The War Against Terror will be a similar sentiment.

    But of course, intelligently targetting is … um … racist so the entire population must be spied on and monitored. This is a feature, not a bug.

  • but it’s not significantly different from what GW Bush did.

    Sure it is, it is considerably bigger. He took what the dismal Bush started and drew the curve upwards. But you are quite right about no GOP opposition and that Trump will pony up whatever they ask for.

  • Runcie Balspune

    The reality is, there is only one group of people who pose a credible threat, but Obama has declined to name them and target them, in some perverse interest of fairness and a misguided sense of egalitarianism, such is the bizarre “progressive” warped vision that he and his cohorts have. That is why it costs so much, because in a politically correct world of social justice, if one person can be a threat then everyone is a threat ((c) 1949-1990 Stasi, German Democratic Republic).

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Perry de Havilland (London)
    September 13, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    …you are quite right about no GOP opposition and that Trump will pony up whatever they ask for.

    Well, the GOP is squarely within the “if some is good, more is better” mindset of government. Trump, as a businessman who had to pay for extras, may not be. Then again, he may.

    Keep in mind that Trump’s ‘supporters’ aren’t supporting him; he produces what they want, or they drop him for a new champion. That’s bound to have an effect on his behavior.

  • Alisa

    Keep in mind that Trump’s ‘supporters’ aren’t supporting him; he produces what they want, or they drop him for a new champion. That’s bound to have an effect on his behavior.

    And much good it will do them while we all are stuck with him for four years.

  • Jerry

    ‘but Obama has declined to name them and target them’

    That’s because he’s one of them but
    – hell, what do I know, there are thousands of other explanations for his behavior over the last eight years and the simplest one could not possibly be correct now could it !!//

  • JohnK

    This mad imperial overreach will only end when America bankrupts itself.

    Of course, America is already bankrupt, but as long as it can persuade the rest of the world to accept its green coupons as the “reserve currency” it can stay in business. The day the rest of the world notices Uncle Sam isn’t wearing any clothes is the day American imperialism dies.

    Bankruptcy kills every empire in the end. When the USA can’t afford the NSA, the problem solves itself.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    And if America does collapse, will anyone be ready to pick up the pieces? China seems poised to rule the world, but has lots of problems, like pollution, and ghost cities, that will stop it. Russia seems to be aggressive, but could it keep world order? Could it police the waters of the world? I don’t think so.
    This may be why we keep taking those coupons called dollars- the world senses the chaos when America does collapse, so wants things to go on until a solution magically appears.

  • RRS

    The “legacy” is not that of the narcissist, but of the composition of the electorate that twice empowered him.

    It is the “legacy” of their “needs,” and deficiencies.

    But, will it continue?

  • Regional

    You people forget America is bigger than the Gubb’mint. Life will go on and remember Prohibition.

  • Obama’s legacy will mainly be that the premise on which he was elected should never, ever be repeated. Which is a shame for future competent candidates of the same hue, but that’s the danger of tokenism.

  • According to Wikipedia, the NSA annual budget is $10.8billion (estimated, 2013). This is $36 per capita per year.

    Best regards

  • rapscallion

    If by “intelligent targetting” you mean those who practice the ROP, then it isn’t racist. Because the religion concerned isn’t a race – just a religion.

  • Paul Marks

    The real legacy of President Barack Obama will be nothing to do with this.

    His legacy will be what he intended it to be – the Cloward and Piven project (started in the 1960s – although taking advantage of stuff that went back as the 1930s) to get most people dependent upon government.

    Mr Trump does not really attack dependence on government – on the contrary he goes around supporting it (see his speech to Iowa farmers praising the government Ethanol scam). And Mrs Clinton is dedicated to the same policy that Mr Obama is.

    When one adds up the number of people either employed by Federal, State and local governments and the people dependent on BENEFITS (Social Security, “earned” Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps…..) it just about makes a majority.

    It is “game over” people – a smaller government candida can not even win the Republican nomination (look up what happened to Ted Cruz).

    Still it is only “game over” till this whole mess comes crashing down.

    Of course Mr Obama actually intends it to come crashing down (I doubt Mrs Clinton does – but that is another story) – Mr Obama is a Cloward and Piven Marxist, he wants society to collapse. Because he believes, honestly and sincerely believes, a wonderful collectivist society will rise in its place.

    Basically Mr Obama looks at somewhere such as South Dakota and sees the following….

    Wonderful places where land is communally owned and healthcare and government benefits are “free”. Such as the Pine Ridge Reservation.

    And the evil “capitalist” rest of the State – with low government spending, taxes and regulations.

    “But the people on the Reservations are very poor”.

    That is because of “racism”.

    When all of America (indeed the world) is as collectivist as the Pine Ridge Reservation – everything will be wonderful.

    The establishment elite, the people who control the schools the universities the media….., really believe this – honestly and sincerely.

    After all Pine Ridge is governed democratically by a Tribal Council – and the land is owned by “the people”. With “free” government services and benefits for everyone.

    It is the establishment elite model for the entire world.

    And they are totally sincere.

  • Paul Marks

    And the NSA and so on?

    Well someone has to track “tax cheats” and “big business”.

    A “much more serious threat than terrorism”.

    At least to collectivist fanatics.

  • Paul Marks

    Even two centuries ago it was known that “income taxes” and “profits taxes” would need what Germans called (even in the 1700s) a Police State – part of what the German thinkers of 18th century dreamed of as part of a Welfare State (not achieved at the time – it was their dream).

    Every detail of the lives of people would have to be known to the authorities for such taxes to be collected. And in a World Economy this has to be done on a World Government level.

    Even Kant, a moderate compared to many, understood and supported this – as long as it was democratic.

    So one does not have to be a Marxist to support any of this – indeed Classical Marxism (not Frankfurt School Marxism) was wedded to violent Revolution – not “democratic socialism”.

    A “liberal” such as Mrs Clinton is very much in this tradition.

    Mrs Clinton does not want a collapse – she is happy for the present society to “evolve” into democratic socialism on a world level.

    So are many businessmen actually – including some billionaires.

    This is what Perry calls one of my “suicide note” contributions – but it is accurate.

    The only hope is that there will be a collapse – AND that people turn to ordered liberty in response to it.

    But the latter (people turning to ordered liberty – rather than to the twin brothers of tyranny and savage chaos) is a truly heroic assumption.

  • Erik

    And if America does collapse, will anyone be ready to pick up the pieces?

    Hopefully not.

    …could it keep world order? Could it police the waters of the world?

    World order be damned for a corollary to world government, and I expect the waters of the world are not a problem to police if one returns to the policy of hanging pirates instead of playing catch-and-release.

  • JohnK

    This may be why we keep taking those coupons called dollars- the world senses the chaos when America does collapse, so wants things to go on until a solution magically appears.


    You may well be right, but the time will surely come when the pretence can no longer be kept up. The USA is bankrupt, and can never pay what it owes, save by printing worthless coupons. I am not saying when it will happen, but it will happen.

    According to Wikipedia, the NSA annual budget is $10.8billion (estimated, 2013). This is $36 per capita per year.


    I am not sure I would trust any open source to give a true figure for expenditure on the NSA or any of the US government’s secret state projects. If they really only spend $10 billion a year on the NSA I would be very surprised. But as I said, they print the coupons. For the time being, they can spend as much as they like. The only thing you can rely on is that it won’t last.

  • Alisa

    Which is a shame for future competent candidates of the same hue

    I actually doubt that, Tim.

  • Laird

    I agree with JohnK’s last point (his first, too, come to that), and I also very much doubt that the NSA spends only $10.8 billion per year. But even if true, that is only one piece of our “security” apparatus. The US has 16 agencies whose very budgets are classified, in whole or in part, on the basis of “national security”. These agencies range from the obvious (NSA, DIA, etc.) to the ridiculous (Department of Energy). So not only do we spend, in the aggregate, far more than $36 per capita on “intelligence gathering”, the total amount of that spending is concealed from the citizens. I find this outrageous.

  • RRS

    What we are observing (IMO) is not possible collapse of our two types of social orders (a substantial base of Western Civilization) and their “economies;” but, rather, the steady progress of their fragmentation; the steady erosion – both intentional and inadvertent – of factors of cohesion.

    For solace in the PMO, one might recommend Albert Jay Nock’s “The Remnants.”

  • Watchman

    Just a response to the point made a couple of times above that there is only one group which is a threat (which is wrong anyway – Russia and Islamic extermists are two groups, and you’re ignoring the fact that China is not exactly big on playing nice etc). Even if this were correct, that is a perspective of realism, whilst to those of the Obama mindset there are equally many threats to the state (which, for all I don’t buy Paul Mark’s fragmentally argued views on conspiracy, is something Obama seems clearly determined to protect and nurture) from those within the US (and it should be noted that most years internal ideological nutters kill far more people in the US than Islamic terrorists – so there is evidence there). If you think like President Obama, then expanding the overall rather than the targetted reach of intelligence services makes sense, and is not wilfully ignoring only one problem.

    And I hate to mention this to commentators, but for a supposed Muslim Obama goes to a surprisingly high number of churches and a very low number of mosques. And doesn’t do Ramadan, or Friday prayers. To be honest, if he is a hidden Muslim he has gone so far from any meaningful observation of the religion that it doesn’t matter. But enjoy your conspiracy theories – far more fun than actually trying to debate the world.

  • RRS


    Implicit in your comment is the “race” to acquire, and “competition” to accumulate, data (information, pertinent or not); which are based on the assumption within hierarchal structures (bureaucracies, etc.) that information and its “control” are major sources of power, influence and “personal advancement.”

    Recent history is replete with examples of the results of those races and competitions.

    Repetition of that experience is indicated.

  • PhilB

    @Rapscallion – Agreed. We desperately need a sarcasm font to alert people.

    But the various interests (Marxists, socialists etc. – add your own flavour of idiot in here) have conflated Islam with race. My point is unless and until we concentrate on the dangerous people, then the vast majority of the effort will be wasted. As a “for example” Muslims ALLEGEDLY make up 3% of the UK population. Since a significant proportion of them are in favour of Sharia law, suicide bombings and other attitudes inimical to Western Christianity based systems and ways of life, then concentrating on the 3% would seem sensible. But no, EVERYONE must be searched at airports, inconvenienced etc. EXCEPT for Muslims who walk through security without being searched.

    So in the UK, to be scrupulously fair waste 32.3333% of the effort (100% of the population / 3% of the problem = 33.333% which means 32.333% of the effort is wasted). if that isn’t a definition of insanity, I don’t know what is!

    El Al – the Israeli national carrier – DOES profile passengers. 60 year old grandmothers who have booked flights 6 months in advance, paid for the flight by credit card, had the tickets posted out to their home and arriving (as women do) with enough luggage to kit out a rugby squad are a low risk. Single young males with Arabic names that book a day or so in advance and print out the tickets themselves who arrive with no luggage are the subject of intense interest.

    Ever heard of a problem with El Al? Thought not …

  • Julie near Chicago

    Paul’s right in general, and in particular on the difference between Obama and Shrill. I may have remarked on this before. Shrill is culturally “American,” as long as you remember that America has had its large-scale thieves and bandits. Obama is more simpatico with the third-world-elite Marxist cultures, led by dictators who nevertheless have their eyes out for worldly prizes. Cross between Springsteen and Mugabe.

    Shrill thinks the band will keep playing and such major swipage as she and her beloved can manage will not kill the goose — even though accompanied by the depredations of the nanny, administrative, investigative, and looted state.

    Either that, or she doesn’t care. But I think she does, out of sheer financial self-interest — and out of what I think is her genuine identification as an American.


    RRS: Talking about walking unarmed in the field of the enemy! What are you doing at Balkinization! *g*

    Actually, though I don’t know if I agree with his overall judgment, I did think that’s a very good piece by Jack Balkin. Glad I read it — thanks for the link.

    By the way, I’m sure you’re aware of the correction that the more libertarian legal Big Noises are giving to the idea that the chief function, or the very purpose, of the Supreme Court is to “make” the law by finding ways to interpret a given statute or part thereof so as to favor or disfavor whatever piece of legislation whose admissability as law it accepts to adjudicate — but not necessarily according to the criterion of its Constitutionality.

    That is, the concepts of “judicial activism” and “judicial restraint” are declared by such as Randy Barnett, the Institute for Justice, and other libertarians as giving entirely the wrong meaning to the charge given to the Justices, which is to decide whether a given piece of legislation is within the powers of the Legislature (or other governmental branch) according to the Constitution. This understanding they call judicial engagement.

    Though I have problems with that particular label, I can only say, We should be so lucky.

  • Alisa

    Julie, spot on about your point of agreement with Paul – indeed.

  • Julie near Chicago


  • RRS


    “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree”

    From AskBlog @ Arnold Kling.com

    Though of Swiss and Norwegian (best I know),
    I like the Dutch admonition:

    Listen to the other side

  • RRS

    Here is what I wrote as a comment to a piece that covered Balkin’s blog entry:

    To sound the same familiar bugle call of “Taps” again:

    The rather pungent segment on “Judicial Review” recites effects of the perversion of making “our” legal system into a means to ends.

    The cooption of the appellate judiciary into the “contests” over the who, how, and extents of determinations of means; and, whether such determinations of means in fact determines actual ends, has no doubt changed the functions of the judiciary (reflected in its composition).

    That part of the judiciary could well be on its way from “independence” to membership in coalition governance.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh fudge, I wrote a reply to RRS, and then didn’t hit “Post Comment.”

    Well, your first comment about the usefulness of disporting in the fields of the enemy: quite. Sometimes, against the odds, one even finds something one agrees with. :>(

    As to your comment about the Judiciary: Quite. And in my book SCOTUS in particular exists for the purpose of seeing whether or not a challenged statute or part thereof meets the criteria establish by the Constitution, according to a coherent and consistent theory of Originalism (Randy Barnett’s “Judicial Engagement).

  • Obama is more simpatico with the third-world-elite Marxist cultures, led by dictators who nevertheless have their eyes out for worldly prizes. Cross between Springsteen and Mugabe.

    I think that’s why he might be the first and last black President of the USA. On a very crude level, they elected a black president and got an African-style presidency and a race war thrown into the mix. Now it might be that a future black candidate might be as American as apple pie and not have the African father who inspires idiotic Marxist policies, but to some degree there will be people who think “Nah, we’ve been there before”. True, this might be classed as racist, but Obama was elected to a large degree on the basis of his skin colour and a desire to demonstrate to the world that America has turned the page on it’s racist past and a black man can indeed become president. So if skin colour is a basis of somebody being elected, it can also be a basis of somebody being rejected, and if the BLM movement and its hangers-on continue to view a black president as somebody who ought to do their bidding because he’s black and and a sitting black president appears to do just that, the electorate might not want another one in future.

    Any future black candidate is going to have to rely on being elected purely on policies rather than skin colour. Good luck achieving that with the current US media.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    My somewhat sour take on one part of Obama’s legacy is that there won’t be another black Democrat nominated for president until a black Republican has had a successful term. Talk about ‘ruining the brand!’

    Note to Alisa: Stuck with Trump and his critics or stuck with Hillary and her sycophants, take yer choice.