President Obama’s NSA Policy Is Based on Shadows and Fairy Tales

His evolution away from civil liberties crusader started with a made-up threat.

Ahead of President Obama‘s NSA speech today, detailing how he’ll try to balance American security with American civil liberties in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the New York Times on Thursday carried a story detailing how the president had gone from civil liberties crusader to a warmed-over version of George W. Bush.

What changed? The president’s perspective. Why? Because he suddenly became viscerally aware of all the threats arrayed against America.

And how did he become aware?

Mr. Obama was told before his inauguration of a supposed plot by Somali extremists to attack the ceremony, what David Axelrod, his adviser, called a “welcome-to-the-N.B.A. moment before the first game.” Although the report proved unfounded, it reinforced to Mr. Obama the need to detect threats before they materialized. “The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way,” recalled Juan C. Zarate, the departing counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush who worked with the Obama team on the threat.

Wait. What?

It seems that Barack Obama—the man many of us voted for in 2008 in order to get a fresh start after the national security excesses of the Bush years — didn’t need much prompting to go over to the dark side. All it took was ghosts, shadows and fairy tales.

What a shame. And how embarrassing, really, for the president. Apparently he’s nothing more than a ’fraidy cat.

To be sure: Terrorist attacks can and do happen. And when they do happen, they can be horrific. Everybody who lived through 9/11 will remember it, and anybody who spent any time at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath — or at the Pentagon, or in rural Pennsylvania — will carry that experience with them until they die. And living through an intelligence briefing, every morning, filled with news of threats against the country, must be an alarming experience.

Still. Your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are roughly 20 million-to-1. You’re in more danger from that cheeseburger you had at lunch than you are from Al Qaeda.

Not that that’s made a difference. Yes, authorities have gone berzerk in the aftermath of successful attacks: The USA PATRIOT Act made it through Congress, almost without a breath, in the first days after 9/11.

More frustrating, though, is that we’ve responded the exact same way to threats that didn’t fully materialize. A guy brings a shoe bomb on a plane, fails to set it off, and boom: Everybody has to take off their shoes before flying home to see grandma. A guy fills his underwear with explosives, fails to set that off, and then we find ourselves going through scanners at the airport, undergoing a virtual strip search when we decide to fly.

Instead of treating those incidents as what they were — failures of terrorism, the triumph of Americans who, after all, will be the last line of defense against the next crazed attacker — we’ve treated them as successful attacks and ratcheted up the security protocols accordingly.

At least those threats, however failed, were real. At least those decisions to deprive Americans of normalcy and privacy were based in actual attempts by actual people to do real damage. If the Times story is true, President Obama can’t even make that claim for his evolution on the topic.

Instead, it was a non-existent attempt by made-up people to do no damage whatsoever that sparked his change of heart. The threat by Somali militants didn’t inject the Obama team “into the realities of national security,” because it wasn’t real.

We Americans, however, are living with Obama’s real response to the made-up threat. We’re a little more spied-upon, a little less free, because the president was afraid of shadows.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.