Barack Obama, Lawyer-in-Chief

Charlie Savage writes: June 2013, when a cascade of leaked top-secret documents showed the world that Barack Obama had entrenched the post-9/11 surveillance state bequeathed to him by George W. Bush, many observers were surprised. But several of Obama’s advisers thought back to an afternoon some 4½ years earlier, shortly after their administration took office. An important meeting with Obama was scheduled to begin in the Situation Room at half past noon on Friday, February 6, 2009. Officials who had been asked to participate gathered around the conference table waiting to brief the new president. He was late.

The officials were there to tell Obama about secret surveillance programs — including the fact that the National Security Agency was collecting Americans’ domestic phone records in bulk. The meeting and its aftermath helped establish a pattern for Obama’s presidency that has confounded many of his supporters. The liberal-minded legal scholar promised change from Bush’s “global war on terrorism,” but he ended up entrenching many Bush-like counterterrorism policies: drone strikes, military commissions, detaining Guantánamo prisoners without trial — and broad surveillance activities, including the NSA’s bulk phone records program. How did this seeming transformation happen? Obama’s approach to the bulk records program — driven, above all, by his inclinations as a lawyer — is key to deciphering the larger mystery. [Continue reading…]

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