The Return of Richard Nixon

Former United States President Richard Nixon garnered praise worldwide for his breakthrough trip to China and lost his praise when his surveillance of others and quotes about his political rivals came to light.

President Barak Obama followed in Nixon’s path this week in both directions. He hosted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and faces the revelations of the National Security Agency Internet and cellular phone networks tracking project that the British paper The Guardian and the Washington Post both revealed. Quite ironically, the summit meeting with Xi took place at the retreat of deceased press mogul Walter Annenberg, who was a Nixon confidante and his ambassador to London.

The Republican Nixon was a conservative national security hawk and the Democrat Obama was elected as a liberal. But despite their coming from rival political camps, they have acted in similar fashion after coming to power. Both were terrified by leaks and recruited the government into the struggle against them. With Nixon, they eavesdropped on conversations of key journalists and officials who were suspected of being their sources. In the days of Obama the fear that the tax apparatus was being used for political persecution was reawakened.

But “Tricky Dick,” who left this world on the verge of the Internet age, could only fantasize about the technological power that the current president enjoys. Nixon’s men sent burglars to Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel to listen in on several telephone lines and risked getting caught red-handed – eventually leading to Nixon’s resignation.

Obama doesn’t need these primitive methods. His intelligence is connected to the largest Internet companies’ servers and to cellular phone operators’ records of conversations, all through the front door without breaking in during the dead of night. Nixon listened to a few people. Obama listens to billions. The data gathered on the Internet played a starring role, according to reports, in the president’s daily intelligence briefing.

The technology of 2013 doesn’t require listening to every conversation with the hope of hearing some incriminating details or gossip on rivals and confidantes. Internet, cellular, GPS and tracking cameras supply much more information on every one of us than the telephone. Forty years ago, America’s enemy was a superpower. The enemy today is the lone terrorist, who isn’t necessarily connected to a hostile organization or a country. In this kind of situation, every person is a suspect, and if not for terror activities then for tax evasion. Nowadays, every Israeli who opens a bank account is required to declare that he or she isn’t American; otherwise, they will be required to report their income here to the authorities in Washington.

Obama and Nixon’s wariness didn’t stem from problematic characteristics. Both of them faced unprecedented leaks both in scope and power. In 1971, The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the great lie behind the American involvement in Vietnam. Several weeks later, Nixon established the “plumbers” unit in the White House basement. He sent them to collect information to embarrass the source for the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg.

Obama is required to face the embarrassment of Wikileaks and now the revelation of intelligence documents. In all these cases, the damage to national security was negligible, but the administration appears permeable and weak and the president was embarrassed before everyone.

The difference between Obama and Nixon is their way of dealing with the revelation. When Nixon’s men were trapped in Watergate, he tried to obstruct the investigation and that is eventually what brought him down. Obama learned the lesson and quickly took responsibility for the digital tracking program and justified them with legal and national security rationales. Thus, he ducked the first wave of criticism.

Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian blogger that revealed the affair, promises additional revelations, but his reports are still far from ensnaring the president in unconstitutional or inappropriate behavior. Until embarrassing recordings from the Oval Office are revealed, like what happened to Nixon, Obama isn’t risking political damage that will get in the way of the rest of his term in office.

Richard Nixon and Barack Obama.Credit: AP, Reuters

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