Four days ago, Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) announced that he was convening an informal bipartisan Congressional hearing to talk about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. Today, the hearing was canceled because President Obama scheduled a meeting for the same time with House Democrats. Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's original correspondent and main advocate, as well as the most prominent person testifying, was quick to insinuate that the decision was politically calculated.
In an email to Politico, Greenwald responded that "Obama developed a sudden and newfound interest in House Democrats and scheduled a meeting with them for that same time."
Greenwald is not exactly subtle, and the message of the email is very pointed about the president's "sudden and newfound" interest. So is the president simply trying to save face from a hearing that would probably make him look bad among liberals? Could we go so far, as some critics inevitably will, to call it a cover-up?
A cover-up seems like a definite stretch, although the White House was clearly trying to save face. Unfortunately for them, though, it was a terrible attempt almost Greenwald-esque in its subtlety. And now it could completely backfire.
The informal hearing was previously a minor news story, albeit an interesting one. With the support of Representative Justin Amash (R-Mich.), whose amendment limiting NSA surveillance came surprisingly close to passing the House last week, a dozen or so Democratic and Republican congressmen would meet with prominent conservative and liberal critics of the program. In Grayson's words, the hearing would rebuke the "constant misleading information" provided by the intelligence community.
The informal setting would create more opportunities for discussion than a regular hearing, and it would amplify the voices nearly drowned out by those invoking the defense of national security against any criticisms of NSA surveillance. And bipartisan anything is a nice change for Washington these days. On the whole though, the hearing was a media appearance, one more prone to political posturing than substantive policy debate.
To start, the politicians were not going to say anything new. Although the two factions of this debate have transcended party lines, last week's vote made it very clear where each individual representative stands on the issue. Furthermore, the premise of the hearing would inherently draw those who tended to support the civil liberties perspective.
Those testifying were not going to say anything new either. While the perspective of the intelligence community has remained dominant in congressional proceedings, the opposition to the program has already made their case clear through the media and other outlets. The hearing would serve to amplify their concerns, not introduce them in the first place.
Finally, Glenn Greenwald was probably not going to say anything new. His statements over the past few weeks, from the initial revelations to recent comments on low-level NSA analysts, demonstrate a very strategic calculus about the publication of new information. He releases information incrementally, often with prior warning in order to first grab the public's attention.
Of course, there is a chance that the hearing would provide a platform for new revelations, particularly given the comments of this past weekend. Yet Greenwald already has a platform through the internet. Whether through the Internet or the hearing, he will release new information this week if he chooses to. The effect on audience size would not significantly differ either way.
The hearings, then, would have criticized the NSA programs and, by extension, the Obama administration, but they would have remained a minor story. Except that the White House has now made a huge strategic communications error by baldly attempting to sidetrack the hearing.
At best, it distances Obama from civil liberties advocates in his own party. At worst, it is a naked political blunder that draws significant attention to a previously embarrassing, but minor, hearing. In either case, it does not provide any sort of strategic benefit, unless all of the attention focused upon the NSA and the Snowden revelations fades during the August recess.
The chances of that happening, of course, are low, particularly since Greenwald can choose to release more information whenever he likes. Besides, with enough interest, Congressional representatives can simply hold another hearing once Congress resumes.
Like many of the events since the initial NSA revelations, the administration's actions have demonstrated a reluctance to take responsibility for its programs and a fear to engage the public by defending its position in open debate.
Today's political maneuvers may have escaped media attention amidst the Bradley Manning decision, but the White House cannot simply block out these criticisms and avoid responsibility forever. Dissent has a way of making itself heard. Three years after Wikileaks and nearly two months after PRISM, you would think the White House would have learned that by now.