Would we blame the President if “something slips” and the Gov fails to stop a terrorist attack?

December 23rd, 2013

In the President’s news conference earlier this week, I was really struck by this line:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, I — I think it’s important to note that, when it comes to the right balance on surveillance, these are a series of judgment calls that we’re making every single day because we’ve got a whole bunch of folks whose job it is to make sure that the American people are protected.

And that’s a hard job because if something slips, then the question that’s coming from you the next day at a press conference is, Mr. President, why didn’t you catch that; why did the intelligence people allow that to slip; isn’t there a way that we could have found out that in fact this terrorist attack took place.

In other words, the President thinks that in crafting the balance on security and liberty with respect to surveillance, one of his paramount concerns (of course) is not letting “something slip.” That is, he worries that by weakening his guard, and the United States misses something on the surveillance realm, a terrorist attack will happen. Then, he worries, the White House press corps will ask whim why he didn’t stop it. (I would imagine the loss of life is of greater concern, but I’ll leave this here).

Americans always want more freedoms, and less surveillance. That is easy enough. But, if the President instituted reforms that weakened the surveillance regime, and a terrorist attack that would have been caught, but wasn’t, resulted in the loss of life of Americans, would we blame the President.

(Of course, I am assuming that the NSA’s use of these surveillance techniques actually stops terrorist attacks. The NSA Panel’s report suggests that not a single terrorist attack was stopped solely based on these technologies. These facts are really relevant to the debate. But I’ll assume this is true for my analysis).

Or, let me give you another hypo. President Rand Paul, who is no fan of the TSA, decides to abolish it. He says we will go back to Pre-9/11 airport security. Or perhaps, he adopts the TSA-pre level of screenings (no body scanners or pat downs). He would be celebrated and lauded by travelers nationwide. This would make the keep-your-cellphone on during takeoff bit seem trivial.

But, say terrorists take advantage of this lax security, and blow up a plane, or fly it into a building and kill many Americans. And it is shown that had the body scanners been in place, the terrorist attack would have been prevented (I find this doubtful, but bear with me. See this post about why Israeli airport security is infinitely more effective). Or, had the NSA been able to collect our bulk meta data, the plan would’ve been stopped two years ago (again, assume this is true).

What would President Paul’s press conference look like? Would the Press lambaste the President, using the exact same questions Obama got, but in reverse?

Or, would Paul say something to the effect of, I was elected President by Americans who were willing to take these risks in order to be more free. I mourn the lives of those lost, but the balance we struck is one the American people wanted. I have difficult imagining any President saying that, though part of me wishes one would.

If the intoxication of executive power seduced even Obama, will President Paul be immune?

Relatedly, any post-terrorist attack would suffer horribly from hindsight bias. Danny Kahneman explored this sentiment in Thinking Fast & Slow:

The worse the consequence, the greater the hindsight bias. In the case of a catastrophe, such as 9/11, we are especially ready to believe that the officials who failed to anticipate it were negligent or blind. On July 10, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency obtained information that al-Qaeda might be planning a major attack against the United States. George Tenet, director of the CIA, brought the information not to President George W. Bush but to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. When the facts later emerged, Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, declared, “It seems to me elementary that if you’ve got the story that’s going to dominate history you might as well go right to the president.” But on July 10, no one knew—or could have known—that this tidbit of intelligence would turn out to dominate history.