Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 23 – the Obama legacy 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on May 3, 2014

This is my 24th posting on what is becoming a series of leaks and unauthorized disclosures of classified US government documents that relate to its War on Terror (see John Peter Zenger, Henry L. Stimson, Edward J. Snowden and the challenge of free speech and the first 22 postings to this series, available at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 as postings 225 and loosely following.)

When I initially began posting on this complex of issues, and on the by now well-known leaks of the US National Security Agency’s open ended surveillance programs that came from Edward Snowden and others, I knew that I would find myself coming back to this a significant and even open ended number of times. But I also knew from at least close to the beginning of this process that I would at least eventually come to the issues of this specific installment.

Every President of the United States eventually reaches a point during their term of office where they begin to think about their legacy, and about what type of long-term impact they will achieve for having served in office. Every President comes to see their term in office and in public life in general from a longer term historical perspective. I doubt that it is even possible in principle, to dispassionately evaluate the long-term impact of any President while they are still in office. First of all, what they do and what they seek to do while still in office is still a work in progress and incomplete. Second, and at least as importantly, any here-and-now evaluation that would take place when a sitting President is still in office, is going to have more of a short term perspective. Legacy and impact are in large part defined by what comes next and on how that is shaped, or at least significantly influenced by what has come before; legacy is all about longer term consequences. And subsequent response to a president’s actions and inactions and to their decisions can be more one of affirmation and continuation, or it can be more one of rebuttal and a turning away from, or as in most cases it can be more mixed and nuanced.

A President’s legacy is as much as anything a foundation that is or is not built upon by their successors and by the ongoing flow of history. And what turns out to be more long-term important from the perspective of history can include and even at times center on details and decisions that were more overlooked when happening, than anything else. Priorities change and sometimes even completely so; issues of seemingly greater importance when happening fade in significance with time and others prove more lastingly important.

When President Eisenhower first raised concern over a growing military-industrial complex and its warping influence on American governance and on American society in general, this statement of concern was briefly noted. But it was never at that time considered as significant a statement as later generations have seen come to see it. This is now considered by some to have been one of Eisenhower’s more prescient observations and warnings. Eisenhower is remembered for a great many things and with a great deal of justification. This, unexpectedly from the perspective of when he said it, is now considered to be one of them.

I offer the above portion of this posting to put what follows in it into perspective. I can only conjecture as to what will rise to the top, and what will sink lower in significance when the presidency of Barack Obama is looked back upon and understood from a wider and more complete historical perspective. Later generations will undoubtedly consider Obama’s place in history with an awareness of the context that he has served in, with its hyper-polarized political pressures and extremes where for many and particularly for many on the Right, compromise on any point of issue or decision has been seen as a synonym for moral failure. This has at least encouraged Obama, a Democrat towards pursuing policies and approaches that would by historical standards up to now, make him more of a moderate Republican for what he does and for what he seeks to do – and even a more conservative one than Eisenhower himself was.

Eisenhower was not a member of any political party and very intentionally so on his part, until after the end of World War II when he left career military service. He was wooed as a war hero and leader by both Democrats and Republicans with hope on their part that he could be convinced to run as their candidate for national political office, and more specifically for the presidency. He chose to join and run for office for the Republican Party as he saw them as being more aligned with his personal views. Obama began as a Democrat, but has always sought a more middle ground, pragmatic approach, and one that outside of today’s political extremism context would put him more in the middle between the two major parties, and on a wide range of issues – and in a middle position that leans to the right.

President Obama will be remembered for his goals and efforts, and for his successes and yes for his failures too in healthcare reform. He will be remembered for his successes and failures in leading the United States out of the Great Recession. He will be remembered for how he addressed and followed through on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that like the Great Recession, were left to him by his predecessor: George W. Bush. And he will be remembered for ending formal involvement of the United States military in those wars – while leaving Special Forces and other American participants in place as an ongoing part of his War on Terror. But as much as he will be remembered and judged on the basis of those areas of policy and action, at least from today’s still myopic perspective, I fully expect that President Obama will be judged for his record in office from his active, expansive conduct of his War on Terror. President Obama did not start this, but when he inherited it he expanded it and both in scale and detail with introduction of massive new programs. And he made the War on Terror his own, and a core element of his own presidential legacy.

I have focused in this series on signals intelligence and on electronic and computer network-based surveillance programs, and that side to this ongoing effort will, I fully expect, prove to be a defining element of his ongoing historical legacy. But to put that into its fuller War on Terror context, this complex of open ended surveillance and related programs (e.g. PRISM, XKeyscore and others) as run out of the National Security Agency (NSA) has been designed, set up and run in coordination with his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programs of targeted assassination by drone strikes and other means, and his programs of detention and of extraordinary rendition where reputed terrorists who are captured are relocated to countries where interrogation methods generally seen as torture are permitted. In follow-up and expansion of Bush’s vision and vocabulary in Obama’s War on Terror-speak, methods of torture such as waterboarding are simply relabeled as “enhanced interrogation.” And that side to this complex of programs and initiatives with their carefully limited oversight and their carefully attempted secrecy have brought in both governmental and private sector participants, with businesses ranging from telecommunications and online connectivity companies, for their role in online and telephonic surveillance to private security and paramilitary firms (e.g. firms like Blackwater from before they changed their name due to bad press for their civilian casualty collateral damage.)

• Eisenhower spoke and wrote of his concerns over a growing military-industrial complex where big business works hand in hand with the Defense Department to their mutual benefit.
• Obama, building on a foundation set by George W. Bush, has actively sought to build and expand a counterpart to that for the 21st century based on a network of large and smaller businesses, and the services and agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.
• President Obama is actively building the foundations of a 21st century version of a problem that Eisenhower gave warning about in an earlier generation. What we might call a newly emerging information technology industry-national security complex or perhaps for simplification a national security-industrial complex. Think of this as a military-industrial complex as updated for the information age.

For everything else that President Obama does and seeks to do through his two terms in office, this will be a part of his legacy, and I expect it to be a part of it that will grow in significance and no matter how his successors address it and its still growing consequences.

At this time I am thinking in terms of adding one more series installment to this growing collection, at least at this time. My intention for that is to more specifically look at the backlash consequences that businesses have faced from participating in this new national security-industrial complex, voluntarily or otherwise and for being publically identified for doing so. I initially touched on some of the issues that arise in that in Part: 18 – the relationship between US government-run national security and private sector businesses of this series and I will more fully explore those issues in a next installment and from the perspective offered here in this installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. I am also listing this under my In the News posting category.

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