Obama’s post-vacation blues: Egypt and NSA spying on Americans

As he heads home from vacation, President Obama faces two major challenges: what to do about violence in Egypt and how to handle the latest revelations about NSA spying on Americans.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama makes a statement to reporters regarding events in Egypt from his rental vacation home on Martha's Vineyard Aug. 15. Mr. Obama's response to the political unrest has been to voice support for people seeking representative governments but limit the role the United States will play to shape those efforts.

As he heads home from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation Sunday night, President Obama faces two major challenges: what to do about Egypt’s violent political turmoil, and how to handle the latest revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans.

On Egypt, everyone in Washington agrees that the United States must respond. The question is, how?

Mr. Obama has condemned the violence, which has seen hundreds of people killed as forces of the military-backed interim government battle supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” he said in a brief statement last week.

Specifically, Obama acted on that “traditional cooperation” by canceling joint military exercises scheduled for September and delaying the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.

But on the TV talk shows Sunday, lawmakers of both parties urged him to do more, including suspending the $1.3 billion in aid the US provides to Egypt each year.

“I don’t see how we can give them aid in light of what has happened,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I do support suspending aid to Egypt at this time.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island agreed: “I do think we can send a strong signal by suspending aid.”

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut said he would make aid to Egypt conditional “on specific steps toward the rule of law and return to democracy.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee had resisted calls to cut off aid. But on Sunday, he switched positions. "I think we need to look at the tiers of our aid," he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona took the hardest line.

"We have no credibility,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” "For us to sit by and watch this happen is a violation of everything that we stand for.”

Meanwhile, Obama is having to deal with the latest revelation about the NSA: that the electronic spy agency regularly collected e-mails and telephone metadata on Americans without first obtaining legal authorization.

The agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, The Washington Post reported last week.

The infractions range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of US e-mails and telephone calls, the Post said, citing an internal audit and other top-secret documents provided it earlier this summer from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, a former systems analyst with the agency.

While Obama as president and commander in chief has prime responsibility here, lawmakers are feeling the heat of public criticism as well.

“Doubts and criticisms about government snooping have started to surface in numerous districts and states,” reports Politico.com. “Amid the mounting revelations, some voters seem eager to have a debate that President Barack Obama and most of Washington never wanted in the first place.”

“Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D) of Michigan, for example, already has tangled with protestors who are seething over the pol’s position on surveillance, and activists have rallied against House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco,” Politico reports. “Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D) of California, has addressed her constituents’ deep-seated distrust of government directly. And perhaps looking to capitalize on the news, Rep. Rush Holt, (D) of New Jersey, had invited the reporter who first unveiled the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programs – Glenn Greenwald – to speak at one of his campaign events.”

“There’s a very real interest and concern expressed more frequently than ever before,” Senator Blumenthal told the news site. “I think Americans have become strongly questioning about big institutions in their lives – not just big government, but big banks, big corporations.”

In a statement responding to the Washington Post story on NSA spying, Obama said the administration is “keeping the Congress appropriately informed of compliance issues as they arise.”

Some Democrats are not so sure.

“I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said in a statement.

Adding together the new Egypt and NSA challenges, Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza wrote that Obama “had the worst week in Washington” during his vacation on the beaches and golf courses of Massachusetts.

Noting that there seemed to be a pattern in the president’s work breaks being interrupted (the “fiscal cliff,” the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy), Mr. Cillizza wrote that “President Obama should probably just stop taking vacations.” 

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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