On Tuesday morning alone, major political headlines provided two near-contradictory narratives about the power of the president. In one set of stories, President Obama is flailing with limited recourse in a Congressional impasse over the looming debt ceiling. The government shutdown has reached its second week — the fallout is spreading to the country’s most needy — and the president can do little more than point at GOP belligerence and give addresses from the White House pulpit warning against the dire economics of default.
Yet, turn the newspaper page (or, more likely, click the next link) and a very different story of executive power is occupying news this morning. The National Security Agency (NSA), the Washington Post revealed today, is collecting millions and millions of email contacts — yet another dragnet reflecting the hoarding complex of contemporary surveillance, which pays scant regard to privacy protections. This latest NSA revelation was particularly important in terms of executive power. Unlike other major surveillance programs revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s leaks, the contact list collection is not even okayed by the U.S.’s secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The surveillance apparatus is operated outside of U.S. territory, and, as such, as the Post noted, “In this program, the NSA is obliged to make that case only to itself or others in the executive branch. With few exceptions, intelligence operations overseas fall solely within the president’s legal purview.” In this instance — as with drone kill lists — the president, the executive, appears to sit atop a vast apparatus of knowledge and unchallenged power.