Politics

The Panopticon President

A new critique emerges. Fear of a narrow new government power at a scary moment.

Less than four months into President Barack Obama’s second term, the hazy perception of a government reaching further and further into individuals’ lives in an era of broad new technological surveillance and power has turned into what may be the defining critique of his Administration.

President Obama, elected with the new technology of microtargeting, is now in danger of a new perception: That he’s the president of microtargeted drone warfare and government surveillance. This is a different critique from the loud and ultimately unpersuasive one Republicans have long made, that initiatives like a health care overhaul, tax increases, and background checks for gun buyers represent a broad, unprecedented, and out-of-control new assertion of power by the American government. The power Obama is now under fire for asserting isn’t broad: It is narrow, even personal. Specific groups and individual reporters were targeted by extremely powerful government agencies. Two specific American citizens were personally targeted in Yemen.

Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.

Today, the day the president denounced the Internal Revenue Service’s “outrageous” focus on Tea Party groups, the Associated Press revealed a Justice Department operation targeting its reporters’ telephone records. These are not identical: The White House is referring questions about the AP phone records to the Justice Department. It remains unclear who knew about the IRS actions.

But the AP records case, in particular, was the American government’s low-tech answer to an increasingly eyebrow-raising series of hacks and leaks that have been central to recent years’ of news: Wikileaks, overseas leaks, phone hacking in the UK, and Bloomberg spying on its customers. And it was the government version of the new political technologies that have alternately inspired and unsettled members of both parties, big data approaches that replace the old tactic of broadly targeting vast groups toward the new one of approaching voters one at a time based on sophisticate technical analyses and predictions of their political views and plans.

The Justice Department’s subpoena of phone records in a leak case probably shouldn’t be a surprise: This Administration has been remarkably, unusually aggressive in targeting leaks — a policy that has surprised and pleased some critics, while alienating traditional alles. But, paired with questions about the IRS and a broader edginess over pervasive surveillance, it’s a sleeper issue that seems poised to break outside its small circle of reporters and advocates.

This reaction, and this new fear, is in no small part the Administration’s fault. Obama has always sought to control elements of politics that couldn’t be controlled, and has an obvious affection for the surgical strike. But it also taps perfectly into the fears of the moment, in which futuristic visions of surveillance, hacking, impersonation, and drone war have become everyday powers of corporations, civilians, and the government.

President Obama is not without a political defense: His Republican predecessor, in a very different climate, authorized a massive warrantless wiretapping program, and battled his own Attorney General to force it through. But if the old Republican Party has little credibility on the questions of civil liberties and individual autonomy, a new one — which joined, at first hesitantly, in Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster on drone policy, is perfectly positioned to makes its new challenge to the White House and the president.

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