It’s a coincidence, White House aides say. President Barack Obama did not deliberately schedule his big NSA speech for Friday to mark the anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning that the “military-industrial complex” posed a potential threat to American democracy.
Eisenhower’s Jan. 17, 1961, speech portrayed the country as locked in a struggle of “indefinite duration” — he meant against Soviet Communism, though the label could apply today to Islamist extremism. He also noted that a vigorous military, and the industrial and technological apparatus that supports it, were necessary.
But then the former five-star general shocked Americans with this:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
He went on:
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
It shouldn’t have been quite such a surprise.
“He really had been trying to hold back the national security state all along, or parts of it, what he considered to be unnecessary,” explains Evan Thomas, author of “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.”
Eisenhower would tell aides “I know those boys” down at the Pentagon and worry that “one day there’s going to be a president that knows less about the military than I do,” according to Thomas.
Eisenhower’s immediate successor, JFK, built up nuclear and conventional forces and wrote “a blank check” to the Pentagon and the CIA. The warning went unheeded until the Vietnam era, when liberals took it up, Thomas explained.
Obama rolled back some of the national security state upon taking office — ending interrogation tactics widely regarded as torture, for instance — while dramatically expanding drone strikes and embracing surveillance on an unprecedented scale.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Obama still sounds like he wants to pursue a debate about where and how America strikes the balance between security and liberty.
Half a year after Edward Snowden gave that perpetual tug-of-war fresh urgency and captured global headlines with leaks about the NSA’s global operations, Obama’s speech on Friday is expected to be far from the final word — by design.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the president will say he favors somewhat tighter limits on the government’s access to telephone data currently scooped up in bulk, but without ending the collection of such intelligence. And he’ll advocate more privacy rights for foreigners, pending a 180-day study by the U.S. director of national intelligence.
On several issues, Obama will leave controversial programs in place but “ask lawmakers to weigh in.”
“I doubt he’ll go overboard,” Thomas predicted.
That may be because one of Obama’s recurring themes throughout the NSA debate has been that he’s willing to discuss where the line should be drawn even as he insists that he’s already drawn it in essentially the right place. That’s not a position that should make anyone expect far-reaching reforms come Friday.
Obama, in an interview with Charlie Rose in June 2013, showed none of the misgivings or concerns Eisenhower had. He described surveillance in terms of inconveniences — TSA checkpoints before air travel, drunk-driving checkpoints on the road.
“To say there's a tradeoff doesn't mean somehow that we've abandoned freedom,” he told Rose. “I don't think anybody says we're no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports.”
At an August 2013 press conference, he underlined: “The programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse; that continues to be true, without the reforms. The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable.”
In 1961, Eisenhower tried to make Americans more mistrustful of the encroachments of a national-security state.
In 2014, Obama is trying to win back their faith, as he made clear in a December 2013 press conference.
“This is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust,” he said.