Obama Chastises Keith Alexander For Trying To Befuddle Him With Tech Jargon

from the not-looking-good dept

The Daily Beast has an interesting article with a number of insider accounts, suggesting that President Obama is seriously leaning towards cutting back the NSA's activities. I'll believe it when I see it -- and there's still a compelling argument that all of these moves are really just an attempt to block or delay serious judicial or Congressional review of these programs. However, there are some very interesting tidbits in the article, including this chastising of NSA boss Keith Alexander for trying to dazzle Obama with tech jargon:
But behind the scenes, Obama was showing some irritation with the intelligence leadership that had pressed for these capabilities and repeatedly vouched for their value. One story that rocketed around the intelligence community involved a meeting between Obama and NSA Director Keith Alexander. Alexander, who holds advanced degrees in physics and electronic warfare, was trying to explain certain aspects of one of the surveillance programs to Obama. As his highly technical and jargon-laden presentation rambled on, Obama was beginning to lose patience. When he finished, Obama thanked him and then icily asked if he could do it over again, "but this time in English."
Some of this fits with earlier statements, in which President Obama more or less admitted that he had no idea what the NSA was up to -- and that only after he found out about stuff in the press did he go back to Alexander and others and find out what the NSA was really doing. At the very least, that suggests incredibly poor leadership skills and five years in which he more or less let the agency run itself with little real oversight.

In fact, the article suggests this may be the case. Despite the fact that Obama, prior to becoming President, supported a number of changes to the surveillance state, upon becoming President, it appears that he let folks like Alexander talk him out of it.
As a senator and as a presidential candidate during the 2008 campaign, Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. But shortly after taking office, he was persuaded by officials that the programs had been placed on a firmer legal foundation and were necessary. He had been briefed on occasional compliance lapses so serious that the secret court overseeing the surveillance programs had threatened to shut them down. But each time he was reassured that no harm was done.

There is no evidence to suggest that Obama expressed much skepticism about the surveillance program during his first term. He was assured on numerous occasions that the NSA's bulk metadata program, which tapped the phone records--though not the content--of virtually all Americans, was a vital tool for foiling terrorist attacks in the United States.
All of this suggests that the President felt he should focus on other things that seemed more pressing, and just accepted the claims of the NSA and its supporters that these programs were both important and legal -- two things that deserved significant scrutiny. But, of course, so long as those programs were kept secret, they weren't "pressing" issues, so Obama could get away with just accepting the claims from the NSA as factual. Since that's changed, he's actually needed to find out what his own NSA is doing, leading to the task force, the changes, and the fact that he's no longer so easily bamboozled with tech jargon from an NSA boss whose specialty seems to be answering questions by not actually answering questions.

I'm still skeptical that we'll see real reform coming out of this part of the process, but hopefully the article accurately shows that President Obama is finally taking a real interest in this, and is no longer simply accepting the claims of the intelligence community.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    kenichi tanaka (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 7:36am

    I've been saying all along that Obama should not have been president in the first place because he lacked any practical experience and this article just proves my point.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:17am

      Re:

      You say that like McCain wouldn't have been similarly bamboozled, or worse cheerfully continue the programs with full understanding because he agreed with the NSA.

      For that matter, I would not be surprised if fear of backlash from the Republicans about being "soft" on terrorism played an equal part to lack of understanding of what the NSA was up to.

       

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      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:50am

        Re: Re:

        And that right there is the problem with 'national security' issues in politics.

        No one wants to be the one to cut back on national security spending or whatever they do to 'keep us safe', because they fear then they and their party will be blamed if there's ever another terrorist attack.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 9:11am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yep. The problem, of course, is that no matter what they do to reduce the risk of such an attack, should one happen they'll get blamed for it by their opposition anyway.

          Therefore, doing things just to reduce the chance of taking a political hit is foolhardy. They should, instead, make these decisions without consideration of the politics at all.

           

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          •  
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            Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 11:54am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Politics without considerations of politics is an oxymoron in this day and age. You might find some tea-partiers going to extremes and looking like luddites in the game of politics, but then you realize that their considerations are political in their home-state primary as opposed to real honest beliefs.
            A politician not covering his buttock and not speaking the language of campaign financiers (there are far more money in defence industries than privacy groups) is not a politician for long enough to take any kind office today!

             

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        Jerrymiah, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 9:37am

        Re: Re:

        It really does not matter which political party is at the helm of the US. Both parties receive mullions of dollars from the Military Industrial Complex. Only a handful in both parties attempt to resist but they're the minority. The US is now stuck in this system and I don't see any possibility for this to change.

         

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      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 10:27am

        Re: Re:

        You say that as if there were only two candidates.

         

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          BeeAitch (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 4:53pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Sadly, to the majority of Americans, there are only two parties.

          So most choose the least bad candidate from their party of choice (to the detriment of their country).

           

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            BeeAitch (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 5:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            ...and this is exacerbated by the fact that both major parties in the US right now are right of center.

            IMHO there is only "right of center" and "slightly right of center" (talking about the two major parties).

             

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              John Fenderson (profile), Jan 3rd, 2014 @ 9:46am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              This. There is no effective liberal political force in Washington anymore, and there hasn't been for a couple of decades. Based on the weird, right-leaning people and groups that arch-conservatives are always calling "liberal", I think they really miss the liberals.

               

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      ty, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 4:16pm

      Really

      Do you remember the last President at all ?? President Bush was the poster child for the uneducated and there are many clips I will be more than happy to remind you of if you need to see them ...

       

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    Guardian, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 7:53am

    then obama....

    Then obama turns and bends over again....

    Are we having fun yet?

    You know the heat's on when they start arguing.....

    -----
    I'm all out of love i'm so lost without you....

     

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    TKnarr (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:06am

    I'd note that as a tech one sure sign that the presentation is content-free or deceptive is the speaker using tons of jargon in place of explaining just what their product does. Think "buzzword bingo" and the like. If I were in a position to do it, I'd probably respond to a lot of salescritters trying to peddle their cruft that wouldn't solve my problems but woud net the sales guy a big commission with exactly the same response Obama gave. Especially if you're giving a presentation to someone you know isn't a technical specialist themselves, you don't go using a lot of jargon only a technical specialist would understand unless your whole goal is to bamboozle them into making a decision without understanding what it is they're buying.

     

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      Matthew A. Sawtell, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:34am

      Remember Don Henley's Song Dirty Laundry?

      "I just have to look good, I don't have to be clear" - Sales of any item can come down to a matter of confidence of the salesperson over the 'customer'.

       

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        Jeff (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:39am

        Re: Remember Don Henley's Song Dirty Laundry?

        did you send your check to Don Henley for using his words???


        seriously - after having to sit through thinly disguised "user" presentations; the more acronyms, the more likely the product is B.S.

         

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 9:13am

      Re:

      Right on the money.

      The tech industry in particular took to heart WC Field's famous advice: if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:08am

    It's not exactly good choices the Americans have had. All they had to look on were promises. If I were American, I don't believe I would vote for the competition even now because I do believe that things would actually be worse with people like John McCain, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney at the rudder.

    Believe me, I am not defending Obama, I think he is a scumbag who lied to get elected only to turn his back on so many promises; but I shudder to think how bad it would be with the other guys.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:11am

    Kinky

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:25am

    Says all you ever need to know about Keith Alexander.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:37am

    Ya think?

    At the very least, that suggests incredibly poor leadership skills

    Pretty much every thing he does or doesn't do suggests poor leadership skills. When he isn't busy mismanaging, he is busy lying.

     

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    ArkieGuy (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:41am

    It's easy to blame....

    We all know that to some extend Obama is "responsible" for the NSA. However, saying that he should know exactly what is going on is a little like saying that the head of General Motors should know details about the janitorial staff in one of the production plants.

    There is a reason leaders (both corporate and political) have underlings... As a human being, you can only process so much information, you have to be able to trust the people under you to do what YOU think is right and NOT blow smoke up your skirt when they disagree.

    Obama's big mistake is letting the NSA top dogs blow smoke and figuring out that there may be a fire.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:56am

      Re: It's easy to blame....

      "... saying that he should know exactly what is going on is a little like saying that the head of General Motors should know details about the janitorial staff in one of the production plants."

      The NSA isn't exactly on the level of significance of janitorial staff (even if they do look for "dirt" on people).

       

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      smoke gets in your brown eye, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 9:46am

      Re: It's easy to blame....

      ...but it tickles

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 10:32am

      Re: It's easy to blame....

      Are you for real? Keith Alexander is not the administration's 'janitorial staff.'

       

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        ArkieGuy (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 11:04am

        Re: Re: It's easy to blame....

        Obviously, they are not functionally equivalent.

        What I was saying is NSA is a REALLY small percentage of the federal government (between 2 and 3%).

        How many CEO's of 600 employee companies have more than a passing acquaintance with a team lead for a group of 17 enployees?

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:37pm

          Re: Re: Re: It's easy to blame....

          If that small team is performing a function that is critically important to the company, you can bet your bottom dollar that the CEO is paying very close attention to them.

          The percentage of the workforce they constitute is meaningless. What counts is how important the people are to the success/failure of the company.

          To argue that the President would be micromanaging to pay attention to the NSA is just preposterous. This is precisely the sort of thing he should be following on a daily basis.

           

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            Trails (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:50pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: It's easy to blame....

            Rather than getting lost in analogies, let's look back at what he was focusing on. He pushed through Obama care, closed out Iraq (sorta), and had to deal with the gov't shutdown.

            He CLEARLY dropped the ball when it comes to NSA, though I would say he's got a halfway decent excuse in that he was probably lied to by Alexander and co., and the surveillance thing wasn't at the time a squeaky wheel.

            For the sake of argument we can give him the benefit of the doubt up to the point when Snowden's leaks came out, because no one, it seems, really knew wtf was going on (this in and of itself is pretty damning for the NSA IMO).

            I can give him the benefit of the doubt up to this point because he's trying to manage a MASSIVE federal gov't with an extremely acrimonious senate and congress. It smells a bit, since he was against warrantless wiretapping as an election line-item, but lying to get elected is apparently somewhat minor on the scale of sins in politics.

            So benefit of the doubt (stretched, but no unduly ocnsidering it's politics) up to that point.

            What punches Obama's ticket is how he's reacted since. He's regurgitated bullshit talking points and flubbed at doing anything to rein in this obviously unconstitutional set of surveillance programs. There is no plausible wiggle room in that for any "I didn't know" or "I was misled by my minions" routine. Since the Snowden leaks he is patently complicit in the surveillance.

             

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              John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:53pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: It's easy to blame....

              Yes, I agree with all of that. It's funny -- as angry as I am at Obama, and as terrible as he's been on many things, he has (unfortunately) been one of the better recent Presidents on the whole.

              It makes me sad. We should have much higher standards than that.

               

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      alistair macnaughton, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:37pm

      Re: It's easy to blame....

      a ceo DOES have to know the janitor's moves as with ALL cep's. if you're at the top,you're responsible.

       

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    Anon, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:46am

    "...he was persuaded..."

    There's a pattern here. As a senator, BO opposed the first surge in Iraq. He opposed broad surveillance and telecom immunity. He opposed the 1st WallSt bailout. That is, until the moment of truth, when he voted FOR all those things. He wasn't exactly persuaded, he simply folded like a cheap lawn chair, repeatedly, on practically every issue.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:46am

    like said above, this shows extremely poor leadership from the President, and to me it shows a total lack of interest in what was going on. if he didn't or couldn't spend the time finding out whether certain programs were necessary and paying off, he should not have taken the word of those who were most involved but had the most to lose as far as position, credibility for other tasks and salaries are concerned. even now, those that have the most to lose still are condoning what they were doing and ordering others to do when there is absolutely no proof of worth!

     

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    JWW (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:55am

    So

    You're saying that Obama

    Is very very troubled by the NSA issues and is going to do something…

    weeks go by

    Obama states that the NSA issues are old news.

    Where have we seen this before???

     

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    Ben (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 10:15am

    degree in electronic warfare?

    What stood out to me:
    Alexander, who holds advanced degrees in physics and electronic warfare
    There are degrees in electronic warfare? "Advanced" degrees?

    It makes me wonder if I should be proud/hopeful of my children playing video games.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 10:37am

    It's not Keith Alexander's fault that the president is a real world idiot.

     

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    Me, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 10:40am

    Lost a Dem for Life

    The thing Obama doesn't get, but perhaps the DNC eventually will, is that Obama's failure on this point has pushed "moderates" like me away from straight Dem voting.

    My personal liberties OUTRANK my interest in other Dem policy positions, like healthcare, the environment, labor, etc. My interest in all of those things is because I want to protect the liberty of others. Now it's time for the DNC to be concerned about me. If they aren't (and they aren't), then they've lost a voter for life.

     

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      TKnarr (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 11:42am

      Re: Lost a Dem for Life

      They aren't losing me. Frankly, both the Democrats and the GOP are about as bad when it comes to personal rights. The Dems are somewhat better, but neither's particularly good so that point's a wash. And the Dems are closer to my positions on all those other issues. So why in the world would I abandon any hope of progress on those other issues just to fail to make a point about personal rights? I hold no political loyalty to the Democrats, but as long as they're a better choice overall than the GOP I'm going to tend to vote for them. The only time I wouldn't is when there's an even better overall option who stands a reasonable chance of being elected. But I'm not going to spend my vote on someone who's got no chance of being elected unless there aren't any other acceptable options. I'd rather get 70% than lose 100%.

      An example is the San Diego mayoral primary. The GOP candidate "won", but didn't carry a majority because the Democratic vote was split between 2 candidates (one of whom had withdrawn and endorsed the other, but once the slate is set candidates can't be removed). Unfortunately for the GOP the rules are that if no candidate gets a majority then the top two go into a runoff election, and the people who voted for the #3 Democrat are... unlikely to vote GOP against the #2 Democrat. But you can see the issue: if I vote in favor of a candidate I 100% agree with but who isn't going to poll enough to even be in the running, I may end up seeing the candidate I 100% disagree with elected over the one I 70% agree with. Which is one reason I favor preferential voting, where I rank candidates in order with my vote going to my highest-ranked candidate who's still in the running and if no candidate has a majority the one with the fewest votes is dropped from the field and the votes re-tallied until one of them wins >50% of the votes.

       

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        Me2, Jan 5th, 2014 @ 4:15am

        Re: Re: Lost a Dem for Life

        I used to think this way, too. Obama pushed me over the edge. Now I think that the only thing worse than a republican is a democrat, because while the republicans will say that they'll do a bunch of awful things once elected, the democrats say they won't do awful things, then turn around and do exactly the same awful things anyway.

        "The only difference between democrats and republicans is that the democrats want you to like them."

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 11:39am

    "but hopefully the article accurately shows that President Obama is finally taking a real interest in this, and is no longer simply accepting the claims of the intelligence community."

    What does it matter anymore, his second term is almost up anyways.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:39pm

      Re:

      It matters because we have to lay the groundwork to ensure that the next President doesn't follow in the same footsteps as Obama, Bush, etc.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:43pm

        Re: Re:

        So do you really think the president of change is going to permanently change anything (in the form of a new bill being passed) between now and the next election?

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 12:55pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          No. But that's not the point.

          This is a long-game battle. There is no fixing it in the next several years, let along in a time span as short as the remainder of Obama's term.

           

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 1:13pm

      Re:

      No his second term isn't almost up. It's only half way through.

       

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      Clownius, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 8:11pm

      Re:

      Yeah. He wont have time to fix it even if he finally decides he wants to.

      Anyone think either major parties Presidential Candidate will campaign on a promise of rolling this shit back? It would guarantee a lot of Votes. But i bet neither will want to touch the issue. They only do what they are told

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 1:51pm

    Also don't forget...

    Alexander offered to resign when the heat on this first started to get turned up and the administration told him they wanted him to stay so I wouldn't read too much into comments like this.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 1:54pm

      Re: Also don't forget...

      I don't know their reason for wanting him to stay, but the one that immediately popped into my mind wasn't that it was because they thought he was doing a great job. It was that he needed to stay to act as the lightning rod. If he resigned, all of the ire would be directed at the President instead of him.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 9:17pm

        Re: Re: Also don't forget...

        I'm not sure if I object to him being used as a lightning rod. This is all almost certainly at least half his fault. He deserves to be stuck in place and raked over the coals for it instead of quietly taking an early retirement and washing his hands of it.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jan 3rd, 2014 @ 9:48am

          Re: Re: Re: Also don't forget...

          On the other hand, the NSA is an executive branch agency, and so in the end, the buck stops on Obama's desk.

           

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            That One Guy (profile), Jan 3rd, 2014 @ 6:21pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Also don't forget...

            I think he's hoping that if he plugs his ears and goes 'LALALALALA' loud enough anytime the NSA's actions come up, people will believe him when he acts like he had no idea they were doing something.

            Might have been somewhat believable before Snowden came along, as the NSA appears to believe it's a law unto itself, and has no problem lying to anyone to protect their agency, but after Snowden... yeah, if he doesn't know what they're doing now, it's because he doesn't want to know.

             

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 1:57pm

    Being a great spy requires a natural gift for obscuring the truth. You can't expect an axe to make finely sliced tomatoes.

    Expecting Alexander to be open and honest ignores the reason he's the nation's top spy. This is a fundamental management mistake.

     

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    Spaceman Spiff (profile), Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 2:21pm

    Back when Obama was a US Senator

    He was originally against the FISA act, then when it came to a vote, he was for it. Personally, I think that the NSA or similar others found some "dirt" in his past and let him know that if he wanted to continue with his political aspirations (like becoming POTUS), then he would have to "play ball" with them. Well, he has certainly "played ball" with these asshats! Now, after Snowden, it is coming back to bite him on the ass! Payback is a bitch, isn't it Barack?

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 2:51pm

    Com-pu-ters?

     

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    Androgynous Cowherd, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 3:28pm

    But shortly after taking office, he was persuaded by officials that the programs had been placed on a firmer legal foundation and were necessary.


    Sadly, that isn't even a lie. The legal foundation of quicksand they now rest upon is firmer than the thin air that underlay them during the Shrub administration.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 3:55pm

    Other democracies forced their presidents to resign for less than this.
    He is either very incompetent, or intentionally let this happen. Im surprised you can still find excuses

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 7:32pm

    I can see the ranking members of the intelligence community lying to President Obama. The intelligence community has lied to everyone else, including Congress, and therefore the American People.

     

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      That One Guy (profile), Jan 3rd, 2014 @ 9:24am

      Re:

      Impossible, why, if they got caught lying to the president, they might get a stern talking to, perhaps even be firmly told not to do it again, and there's no way they'd be willing to risk that! /s

       

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