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Threats Test Obama's Balancing Act on Surveillance

President Obama has said he wants eventually to scale back drone strikes and steer the country away from a single-minded focus on counterterrorism. But in response to a vague yet ominous terror warning in recent days, his administration shut down nearly two dozen American embassies and consulates and waged an intense drone campaign in Yemen.

American officials speak of the need for vigorous debate about controversial National Security Agency programs revealed by Edward J. Snowden, and Mr. Obama on Friday promised greater accountability to keep the surveillance state in check. Yet his underlying message was clear: the expansive monitoring of telephone and electronic communications would continue because the safety of the country depended on it.

America's war on terrorism may one day end, as Mr. Obama said in a speech in May, but until that happens the president has given every indication that it will be fought in much the same way it has for nearly 12 years. Even Mr. Obama's promise of more transparency appeared to fail an instant test during his Friday news conference. Asked about the flurry of American drone strikes in Yemen, which have been reported by every news outlet, Mr. Obama demurred.

"I will not have a discussion about operational issues," he said.

Mr. Obama, who ran for office in 2008 against what he described as the excesses of counterterrorism under President George W. Bush, has occasionally expressed ambivalence about drone strikes and aggressive surveillance. But with Republicans ever ready to pounce with accusations that he has made the country less safe, he has declined to abandon any of the tools used by his predecessor, with the sole exception of the brutal interrogation methods once used by the C.I.A.

The government's striking response to the reported terror threat in recent days has coincided with a wave of unprecedented skepticism about the N.S.A.'s sweeping surveillance programs since Mr. Snowden's disclosures.

When Mr. Snowden began releasing secret documents two months ago, Mr. Obama said he welcomed a debate on the trade-offs of N.S.A. surveillance and privacy. But the debate has grown far larger than administration officials anticipated, with lawmakers of both parties in Congress and half of Americans in polls calling for curbs on the agency.

On Thursday, two small companies providing secure e-mail to customers added their voices. Lavabit and Silent Circle announced that they would shut down their e-mail services rather than give in to what they suggested was government pressure to make customers' messages available to the N.S.A.

In a message on his Web site, Ladar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, said he was forced "to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit."

He said he was prohibited by law from explaining what had happened over the last six weeks, but the suggestion was that he was fighting a government demand for access to the e-mail of one or more customers.

Mr. Snowden's disclosures have had a continuing, even escalating impact as journalists have continued to pore over them. On Thursday, for instance, The New York Times wrote that the N.S.A. was examining all e-mail messages in and out of the country and searching them for clues associated with terrorism or foreign intelligence.

On Friday, The Guardian, the British newspaper that has published many of Mr. Snowden's revelations, wrote about a clause in N.S.A. rules that permits the agency to search for Americans' names and identifying information in data about foreign targets gathered from large Internet companies.

In his remarks on Friday, Mr. Obama said he was satisfied that the N.S.A. programs were both necessary and respectful of Americans' privacy. He acknowledged the "instinctive bias of the intelligence community to keep everything very close." But he said he had urged America's spies to err on the side of making more details public.

"Let's just put the whole elephant out there, and examine what's working," he said.

On Friday evening, the State Department announced that nearly all of the embassies and consulates that had been closed this week would reopen on Sunday -- with only the American Embassy in Sana, Yemen, remaining closed. The consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, will also stay closed, the result of what American officials said is a different threat from the one that had forced the closing of the other diplomatic posts.

With intelligence agencies trying to piece together information about a terror plot allegedly discussed in recent weeks between senior Qaeda operatives, American drones delivered a flurry of missile strikes throughout Yemen.

Eight strikes have been carried out in Yemen in the past two weeks, a ferocious rate of drone attacks rivaled only by the two-week period after a suicide bomber killed seven C.I.A. employees at a base in Afghanistan in December 2009.

During his speech at National Defense University in May, President Obama said that targeted killing operations needed to be tightly constrained. The United States only carries out strikes against terrorists who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to Americans, the president said, and only when it is determined it would be impossible to detain them, rather than kill them.

And, Mr. Obama said, "before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."

It is yet unknown who exactly was killed in Yemen during the past two weeks. Therefore, it is hard to judge the recent strikes against those standards the president laid out in May. Specifically, did the dozens of people reportedly killed all pose a "direct and imminent threat"? And, with American officials fearing that an attack could happen at any moment, just how much care was taken before each strike to determine that no civilians were in the missiles' path?

At the very least, this extraordinary period of killing operations in Yemen has revealed just how much the president's stated inclination to be more judicious about drone strikes is tested in a period of perceived crisis.

Striking a balance between liberty and security is a leitmotif in many of President Obama's speeches, and on Friday he spoke of "rebalancing" the ledger after the demands of more than a decade of war.

But the changes he announced on Friday were incremental rather than radical -- more of what he referred to as "tightening the bolts" rather than dismantling the machine itself.

[Source: By Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, The New York Times, 09Aug13]

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