The American public will tolerate intrusive surveillance, but only if they are convinced the threat justifies it

Obama has not acted like the commander- in- chief of a nation facing the kind of threat that justifies intrusive surveillance.

obama walking in white house 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
obama walking in white house 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Barack Obama’s pledge to bring transparency to the National Security Agency surveillance programs is unlikely to affect the raging debate over the intrusiveness of the surveillance unless he does a better job of explaining the threat that justifies the intrusion. As World War II demonstrated, the American public has a high tolerance for intrusive surveillance if they are convinced it’s keeping them safe from a real threat.
Two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, president Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8985, which established the Office of Censorship, and, apparently on the theory that journalists make the best censors, appointed as its director Bryon Price, the executive news editor of the Associated Press. EO 8985 declared that the nation’s security required that “military information that might be of aid to the enemy be scrupulously withheld at the source.”
One of the NSA’s controversial programs involves the monitoring of cross-border emails that mention terrorists or terrorism-related activity.
The damaged battleships at Pearl Harbor were still smoking when telephone and telegraph companies began installing equipment to route Americans’ telephone calls and cables through US Army censors’ offices. During the war, every crossborder communication – mail, cables, telegrams, radiograms and telephone calls – was intercepted and many were blocked or censored.
Barely a year after Pearl Harbor, the Cable Division of the Office of Censorship had 3,000 employees reading cables and the Postal Division had 10,000 doing the same with letters.
Censorship extended into every aspect of American life. To prevent spies from sending coded messages, radio stations, at the request of the Office of Censorship, stopped doing or drastically limited man-in-thestreet interviews and refrained from notifying listeners about lost dogs or property (secret information might be hidden in the description of a bulldog’s appearance). Print and radio sports journalists did not disclose that a game had been cancelled due to rain or even that fog was interfering with play since weather information (other than the carefully written US Weather Bureau reports) might facilitate enemy attacks against ships and coastal targets. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was admonished by the Office of Censorship for mentioning the weather in her column, “My Day” (she promised never to do it again).
For the most part, Americans accepted the intrusion and found ways to adapt but, to be sure, there were abuses. In March 1943, the World Jewish Congress in the United States sent a cable to its counterpart in Great Britain that discussed the availability of neutral shipping to transport Jews out of Europe. The sender included in the cable a “note for censor” explaining why the cable did not involve military information.
The cable was not blocked, but a copy was passed to the State Department, which regularly received from the Office of Censorship intercepts of cables sent and received by the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations.
The intercepts disclosed their strategies to pressure the governments of the United States and other Allied countries to do more to rescue Jews and stop, as phrased in one cable, the “wholesale slaughter European Jewry.” However, anti- Semitic diplomats in the State Department improperly used the cables to formulate a strategy for deflecting pressure to rescue Jews.
Americans, then at war with two fanatic, militarized dictatorships, fully understood the national security threat that justified the intercepts.
But in the war on terror, even though the September 11, 2001, attacks all but brought this country to its knees in a way that Japan or Nazi Germany never did, such clarity is currently lacking. Unlike armies on the march, terrorists are vague and shadowy, at once everywhere and nowhere, but never really a presence until a major terrorist strike. And, since it’s been nearly 12 years since 9/11 and al- Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is dead, little wonder that the public is now focused less on the threat and more on the intrusiveness of the NSA programs, and growing ever more distrustful of the Obama administration’s explanations.
But, above all, President Obama has not acted like the commander- in- chief of a nation facing the kind of threat that justifies intrusive surveillance.
Last year, in the closing stages of his re-election campaign, President Obama declared that al- Qaida was “on the run.” Then, in his speech on May 23 of this year at the National Defense University, President Obama emphasized that the “threat has shifted,” pointed out that al-Qaida had not been able to attack American soil since 9/11, and outlined an exit strategy from the “boundless global war on terror.”
Two weeks later, Americans learned from The Guardian that the NSA was gathering tens of millions of their phone records.
Since those revelations, President Obama has slightly changed his tone in describing the terrorist threat. More recently, he asserted that while the core leadership of al-Qaida has been “decimated,” its regional networks have “metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.” But he’s still a long way from convincing the American public to accept intrusive surveillance as the price of protection from a real threat. If he’s right about the threat, let’s hope that, sooner rather than later, President Obama can persuade the public that the price is justified. Otherwise, only a major terrorist strike on American soil will convince the public to accept the kind of intrusive surveillance that, in the first instance, might have prevented the attack.
The writer is a former federal prosecutor and a lawyer and writer in New York City. His most recent book is ‘America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy.’