- By Peter Feaver
Today President Barack Obama finally joins the national debate he called for a long time ago but then abandoned: the debate about how best to balance national security and civil liberty. As I outlined in NPR’s scene-setter this morning, this debate is a tricky one for a president who wants to lead from behind. The public’s view shifts markedly in response to perceptions of the threat, so a political leader who is only following the public mood will crisscross himself repeatedly.
Changing one’s mind and shifting the policy is not inherently a bad thing to do. There is no absolute and timeless right answer, because this is about trading off different risks. The risk profile itself shifts in response to our actions. When security is improving and the terrorist threat is receding, one set of trade-offs is appropriate. When security is worsening and the terrorist threat is worsening, another might be.
It is likely, however, that the optimal answer is not the one advocated by the most fringe position. A National Security Agency (NSA) hobbled to the point that some on the far left (and, it must be conceded, the libertarian right) are demanding would be a mistake that the country would regret every bit as much as we would regret an NSA without any checks or balances or constraints.
Getting this right will require inspired and active political leadership. To date, Obama has preferred to stay far removed from the debate swirling around the Snowden leaks. This president relishes opportunities to spend political capital on behalf of policies that disturb Republicans, but, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir details, Obama has been very reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of national security policies that disturb his base. Today Obama is finally engaging. It will be interesting to see how he threads the political needle and, just as importantly, how much political capital he is willing to spend in the months ahead to defend his policies.
Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy), where she co-teaches a course on managing political risk with Condoleezza Rice. Previously, Zegart taught at UCLA, worked at McKinsey & Company, and served on the NSC staff. Her academic writing includes two award-winning books: Spying Blind (Princeton University Press, 2007), which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design (Stanford University Press, 1999), which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She recently finished a book on congressional intelligence oversight, Eyes on Spies (Hoover Institution Press, 2011), and is currently working on a popular book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart has also written about national security in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Slate. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she lives in California with her husband and three children.| Amy Zegart |