Jimmy Carter's forgotten history lesson

While many scoff at or ignore the ex-president's every word, he has unique credibility on the NSA. Here's why

Published July 19, 2013 2:55PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Amr Dalsh)
(Reuters/Amr Dalsh)

former president has given the weight of his voice and reputation to the critics of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program, blasting the federal government’s “invasion of human rights and American privacy” and suggesting that leaking the program’s existence to the press was “beneficial.” Ordinarily, this might give even the staunchest defenders of the NSA pause, for ordinarily a former president’s opinion carries considerable influence.

But this time it will make little difference. For the former president is, of course, Jimmy Carter — the only former president one could imagine making such a statement, and not coincidentally one of the more widely detested former presidents in recent memory.

More than one generation has been brought up hearing that Carter was one of the worst presidents of all time, that his administration was egregiously corrupt and grossly incompetent, and that he made America a laughingstock among nations. The fact that Carter was and is a man of extraordinary personal character and integrity, and that he has displayed these qualities in abundance since leaving the White House, has made no difference. Every time he makes the news, he is denounced by a chorus of yahoos who remind us that he is, after all, Jimmy Carter, the man who made us all look stupid, the man we couldn’t wait to be rid of.

What a curious consensus this is.

For President Carter started no wars, bombed no civilians, and committed no crimes against the Constitution. He did not sell weapons to terrorists or spy on his political opponents. The handful of “scandals” associated with his term in office seem hilariously trivial in our age. He was, certainly, far from perfect — but perfection is a fairly useless standard to apply to any elected official. If we can move past the automatic associations that spring to mind when we think of Carter — the “malaise” speech, the killer rabbit, the hostage crisis — his presidency may be relevant for us in an entirely different way.

Today, the Central Intelligence Agency has a presence virtually anywhere that trouble can possibly be stirred up — providing weapons to insurgents in Syria, beefing up its presence in Iraqtraining rebels in Jordan, and providing millions of dollars in bribes to the corrupt government of Afghanistan. But none of this has shocked the public or led to cries for reform. The doings of the national security state, as the federal government’s security and intelligence apparatus has aptly been called, now seem as remote from most Americans’ lives as the sex life of a Saudi prince, and less interesting. But it was not always thus. There was a time when Americans were genuinely shocked by stories of CIA meddling, of lawless spying, of secret assassinations. There was a time when Americans were naive enough to believe they had the power, as well as the right, to change those policies.

Carter’s criticism of the NSA carries particular weight because he was the last president to date — and perhaps the only president of the entire modern era — who even tried to do something about the national security state. As investigative journalist Mark Ames recently wrote, President Carter attempted to clean up the CIA, firing almost 20 percent of its employees, focusing on the “clandestine operatives” whose cloak-and-dagger exploits were then fresh news. He also dispersed the agency’s paramilitary arm, put legal restrictions on the agency’s power to spy within the United States, and passed an executive order banning assassinations. All of this was entirely in keeping with Carter’s mandate, after Watergate and Vietnam and revelations of various CIA misdeeds, to restore the moral integrity and authority of the federal government.

But none of Carter’s reforms would last. President Reagan signed an executive order in December 1981 authorizing the CIA to collect “foreign intelligence” inside the United States — the first of many steps his administration would take to restore the power and prestige of the agency. As Ames notes, it did not take CIA and military apparatchiks long to realize that the ban on assassinations could be circumvented quite easily as long as they could be framed as something other than “assassinations.”

Even the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that Carter signed in 1978, which seemed to put serious restrictions on the federal government’s surveillance powers, had loopholes that subsequent administrations would exploit to the hilt. Today, the FISA court — which operates entirely in secret, authorizing electronic surveillance and drone strikes completely out of reach of the public eye — approves nearly every request that comes before it, making a mockery of its original purpose. In February, the Supreme Court ruled that no American has any standing to challenge the government’s surveillance powers in court because the very secrecy of the program means that no one can prove that they are being targeted.

Could we have expected anything better? After all, when Carter ran for office promising to promote “a government that is as good and honest and decent and competent and compassionate and as filled with love as are the American people,” plenty of people laughed at him. Put that baldly, it does sound ridiculous. Who could expect any government to act like that, let alone the most powerful government in the history of the world? No one — save for a citizen of that country.

For the citizen cannot afford to be cynical, cannot afford to regard the doings of his government as someone else’s business. The ideal conditions of democratic self-government, Abraham Lincoln once said, will “never [be] perfectly attained,” but they must be “constantly approximated.” That is every citizen’s task in a republic, even a republic beleaguered by corruption and official deceit. The calm, forceful, old-fashioned common sense of the independent-minded citizen is the only possible answer to the mad, endless self-justifications of the national security state.

“In a few days,” Carter told the nation in his final address as president, “I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office — to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”

It is, of course, easy to imagine other presidents mouthing such noble, tinny sentiments — and then taking off to the golf course. But Carter has lived up to those words. More than almost any other public figure of the last few decades, Carter understands that one of the citizen’s primary tasks is to be a gadfly.

He has been a thorn in the side of every administration since his, without regard to party. He has never ceased reminding us of the political responsibilities that accompany our political rights — the duty, above all, to be vigilant. Carter, who has been an object of ridicule for much of America since the day he left the White House, has also been our country’s truest citizen, the embodiment of Ibsen’s statement that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” That is a formidable standard for the rest of us to live up to.

By Justyn Dillingham

Justyn Dillingham is a freelance writer residing in Tucson, Arizona.

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Fisa Foreign Policy Jimmy Carter Nsa Presidents Spying Surveillance The 1970s