President Barack Obama announced Friday that John Podesta, his new “counselor” and the political operative responsible for creating the institutional left in Washington, will be the appointed “to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy” in the aftermath of revelations about the National Security Agency’s electronic spying programs. When he joined the White House last month, Podesta’s focus was said to be “climate change.”
The president’s speech contained little news. It was a classic Obama set-piece, designed to demonstrate that he understands both sides of a complex argument, while delegating responsibility to third parties and taking steps that reinforce the interests and goals of the hard left. In this instance, Obama left final decisions about where to store NSA data to Congress, while making sure that Podesta is in charge of the consultative process as a whole.
To be fair, there are few clear answers, even in the wake of stunning revelations about the NSA, as to where the line between security and privacy ought to be drawn. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has led the opposition to the NSA’s surveillance programs, quipped: “I think what I heard was if you like your privacy you can keep it.” Yet aside from a general sense of mistrust in the president, there is little agreement in his party about a solution.
Democrats are no more united. Their primary concern, like Obama’s, is to make the issue go away. Obama has an additional goal: to restore an image of competence. He knows that his speech will not assuage the concerns of privacy advocates, and could lead to confrontation with intelligence agencies. “But I want the American people to know that the work has begun,” he said. Under Podesta, of course–a detail Obama left for the end.
It was telling that the president chose to deliver his speech at the Department of Justice, which is something of a political haven for him. Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would extend rules against racial profiling to include religious groups, a move sought by Muslim organizations that are upset about the federal government’s (limited) surveillance in mosques and Muslim neighborhoods.
It is difficult to see how the U.S. will prevent attacks by religiously-motivated terrorists if it cannot identify them by their religious affiliation. The new policy suggests that early protests by conservatives against hiring former terrorist defense lawyers in the department were justified. In the context of Obama’s NSA speech, the ban on religious profiling is a reminder that for this administration, political interests often trump national security.