How great it was to hear Barack Obama giving one of his increasingly rare excellent speeches at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday! If not quite great, the president’s stirring talk was brilliantly crafted, poignantly evoking the former South African leader’s most important legacies — among them his example of courage and perseverance under terrible state oppression — by providing Obama’s personal testimony about how it spurred him to take up politics three decades ago. He went on to urge all people to work for peace and justice. “While I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better,” Obama said. “He speaks to what is best inside us.”
Watching the first black American president deliver a historic eulogy for the “great liberator” of South African blacks helped nudge his office another step from the terrible taint of his predecessor’s administration. Not a large one, however, because it also reminded of Obama’s failure to live up to his own words.
Obama may be justly criticized for many shortcomings, including failing to outlaw torture, refusing to roll up his sleeves and fight for his platform by giving into Republican demands for budget cuts and declining to cut backroom deals when necessary. No one’s perfect; his presidential persona is aloof and professorial, not activist and confrontational, that’s not necessarily his fault. After all, his one great consistency — failing, many on the left would say — has been to stick to his promise to try to unite a country that doesn’t seem to want that.
But one issue stands out among the others: the Edward Snowden Affair.
“Mandela showed us the power of action,” Obama said on Tuesday, “of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.” He criticized his counterparts for failing to respect those who do that, a large camp that includes Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship or who they love.”
How to square that with the White House’s treatment of the former NSA contractor, who is currently evading arrest by taking asylum in Russia? He broke the law, to be sure, but when it comes to the ideals Obama raised, his administration’s ham-fisted actions over Snowden have had the effect of making the president appear hypocritical.
By handing thousands of downloaded NSA files to journalists that exposed secret, highly invasive snooping on hundreds of millions of people in the United States and abroad, Snowden singlehandedly opened a global debate about whether we want to live in a society where our democratic government is allowed to exploit the spread of digital communications to violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens, even if it’s strictly legal and in the name of national security.
Speaking to the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald last summer about his access as an intelligence systems analyst to information about government surveillance, Snowden said that “over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about. And the more you talk about the more you're ignored. The more you're told its not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”
Snowden’s revelations have exposed the lies of senior officials in the Obama Administration who said the NSA was doing no such spying: National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who denied the agency collected any data on hundreds of millions of people and NSA chief General Keith Alexander, who said it did not intercept Americans’ e-mails and texts. In what may be his most shameful moment, Obama himself dubiously said that he had initiated a review of the government’s spying programs before Snowden made his revelations.
In fact, the Obama Administration, almost certainly more knowingly than it has let on, has allowed one of the worst legacies of the Bush Administration — its rolling back of our cherished constitutional rights of liberty — to endure and even deepen by becoming further institutionalized.
Recent polls show about half of Americans believe the government isn’t adequately protecting privacy. In a survey carried out by the AP and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 71 percent of respondents said they don’t want officials eavesdropping on US phone calls without court warrants as happens now.
Mandela “accepted the consequences of his actions,” Obama said on Tuesday, “knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.” Without comparing him to Snowden, the young American has undoubtedly sacrificed normal life while making a sober, eloquent defense of his actions as doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Speaking of ideals, that’s nothing if not a bid to strengthen our democracy by informing the electorate about the secret actions of its government.
Obama should recognize that by addressing the spreading culture of spying, even at the risk of providing encouragement for other whistleblowers. His speech on Tuesday echoed the persona of someone bold enough to do that: the community organizer Obama — the sometimes stirring orator of whom his legions of disillusioned supporters had hoped to see more in the White House.
Despite the tremendous difficulty of accomplishing anything in Washington during the current poisonous political atmosphere, it’s not too late for Obama to help secure his legacy by doing what he can: bridging the gap between his words and his administration’s actions.