It has become painfully clear that what the National Security Agency lacks, above all, is discretion. That probably occurred to President Obama on Wednesday, when he got on the line with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, who was calling with what was apparently unmitigated anger to ask why the N.S.A. was monitoring her cell phone. Obama told her that it isn’t, or won’t—a “wasn’t” seems to have been missing—but Merkel’s government had seen enough, in N.S.A. documents obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, to know what it thought. (According to Reuters, one listed her mobile phone number.) Obama had a similar call with France’s François Hollande, and may have about thirty-three more, based on the latest Guardian report on the number of heads of state whose phones it tracked. But the N.S.A.’s wildly indiscreet character had already come well into the light in the first documents leaked, this summer, by Edward Snowden, about its mass, often indiscriminate collection of American telephone and Web communications. The Agency moves broadly and clumsily; it’s greedy in a way that is unhealthy; it tells itself that rules can mean what it wants them to mean; it is a poor judge of people; it has no real discernment—and that, for a spy agency, may be the worst part of all.
On October 4th, a boy named Avonte Oquendo walked out of his school in Queens in the middle of the day. He’d first approached one exit, where a security guard, with a degree of diligence that will long be debated, asked him where he was going. He didn’t answer; he couldn’t. Avonte is severely autistic, and, at age fourteen, unable to speak or use language. The school was supposed to be watching him. But the guard, as far as the police can tell from security footage, one way or the other didn’t stop him from then leaving through a side door. Anyone who’s seen him since is not telling.
“Precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work,” President Obama said in the Rose Garden on Monday. “I want the checkout lines to be smooth. So I want people to be able to get this great product.” A lot of people seem ready to throw those cash registers—that is, the computers on which they are trying to enroll in health-insurance plans with the help of the Affordable Care Act—through the window. Obama said that he wasn’t going to “sugarcoat” the problems with the Web site, Healthcare.gov—“Nobody is madder than me,” he said. The “kinks” have gone well beyond a rush of traffic. But he also wanted people to know what he was selling:
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, told the Times at the beginning of this week, when the default clock was still running. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” The Times piece described how Collins, drawing on her connections with other women Senators, with whom she often shared meals, was putting together a bipartisan way out—and, thanks to how well women play with others, it just might work. Time, similarly, had a story called “In Shutdown Washington, Women are the Only Adults Left,” which referred approvingly to how Collins “refrained from partisan blame” while other women seemed to fall over themselves to offer compromises and, in the words of Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, be “reasonable.”
“I do not come here to pin a rose on this legislation,” Nancy Pelosi said, just before 10 P.M. Washington time, as a bill to end the debt-ceiling crisis came to the floor of the House. “It does not have that respect.” She delivered the votes for it, though. Two hundred and eighty-five representatives said yes, eighty-seven of them Republicans—and, with that, after sixteen days of shutdown, Congress will let federal workers do their jobs and the Treasury pay our bills and not disgrace the country. There has been enough of that from G.O.P. extremists, who, after spending Wednesday staggering around Washington, wondering where it had all gone wrong, won nothing in the final bill.
Obama held out, and got a stubborn victory. The Republican Party was exposed as a mottled wreck. That’s good to know, but not good to have: a broken party can do a lot of damage. The crisis did not end in a way that will contain its dysfunction. On Tuesday, it looked like John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, couldn’t control his caucus at all, alarming anyone who assumed that the G.O.P.’s leaders would know when and how to manage an orderly surrender. Fitch, the rating agency, had to put the U.S. under a negative credit watch, and we got within hours of hitting the debt ceiling before the G.O.P. dragged itself together. The Democrats won without betraying millions of uninsured Americans; the bill doesn’t substantively change Obamacare, let alone defund it—the Republican goal—and they didn’t give up anything else. They pushed, and that was useful. But it is not as though some country-bettering initiative made it through, after a lot of wasted time. The bill only keeps the government open until January 15th, with budget talks in December, and the debt ceiling at a sufficient height until February 7th. The whole package gets at most two cheers.
Congress, two days before a national default rolls in, appears to be occupied with multiple parallel daydreams, the unrealistic ones each unrealistic in their own way. Since Monday afternoon, there has been word every hour that a Senate deal to reopen the government (until January 15th) and not renege on the debts of the United States (or not until February 7th) would be closed any minute. The deal involved more “income verification” for people getting help buying insurance under Obamacare—the health-care version of a voter-I.D. law—and delaying a fee on insurers meant to protect those with less healthy subscribers (helpful for union plans), plus talks, in December, to keep alive the vision of bipartisan budget compromise. But there were two concerns to wish away: that Ted Cruz, or another unhinged Senator, would use parliamentary moves to delay a vote until it was too late to avoid all-out default, and that House Republicans would just scream and say never.
They’ve already begun to yell. “We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” Congressman Tim Huelskamp, of Kansas, said, according to the Times. On Tuesday morning, the Republicans briefly seemed to have their own bill, which looked a lot like one that has already been rejected by the Senate, but with the threat of worldwide economic ruin mixed in. Darrell Issa, the California Republican, referred to it as “enhanced.” (He also told the Times that the Republicans began their Tuesday meeting by singing “Amazing Grace.”) But by the time the Republican leadership came out to introduce it, the bill already appeared to be dead—not Tea Party enough. Eric Cantor was left to talk sourly about “fairness.”
A military lawyer had identified forty-one highly classified state secrets revealed in a single article. Senior officials were telling everyone who would listen that the journalists’ revelations had made the country less safe and put lives at risk—the reporters were simply traitors. The Russians might be behind it, and who knew what secrets the journalists would hand over if they weren’t immediately apprehended. Their publisher was already in Cuba, or maybe just headed there on a plane—anyway, he was a fugitive. A call was put in to a military attaché in Spain, to ask him to arrange to have another journalist stopped at the border; a soldier thought to be his source was arrested. The country’s leader mocked the media outlet involved: “You’ve got a publication that prints a half a million copies and systematically engages in treason—to make itself some money.” And not just a little treachery: “an abyss of treason.” The whole thing was “just plain ugly.”
When the announcement came, this morning, that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had won the Nobel Peace Prize, not all of the group’s members were home in their beds, or near their homes at all. Some inspectors are in Syria, trying to translate the recent diplomatic openings regarding that country’s chemical weapons into some sort of reality. “We are conscious of the enormous trust that the international community has bestowed on us,” Ahmet Üzümcü, the group’s director general, said. The award, for which he said he was grateful, “will spur us to undying effort.”
“We’ve got a lot of things going for us,” President Obama said at a press conference Tuesday. The economy was looking up; people were working, oil was flowing, life would be not so bad but for the “uncertainty caused by just one week of this nonsense.” Nonsense was one of the kinder words he had for the government shutdown—“We can’t make extortion routine”—and the possibility that Congress would let the United States default on its debts, about nine days from now. He called that an “economic shutdown.”
Obama kept asking people “just to boil this down to personal examples.” In their own lives, if they weren’t happy, they “don’t get to demand ransom in exchange for doing their jobs,” or decide not to pay bills out of grumpiness. They “wouldn’t deal with co-workers or business associates in this manner.” Just as “you’re not saving money by not paying your mortgage; you’re just a deadbeat,” refusing to raise the debt ceiling, the statutory limit on the amount Congress can borrow to pay its bills, would not make those bills go away. “What’s true for individuals is also true for nations, even the most powerful nation on earth.”
Did the two raids that the United States carried out Saturday, in Libya and Somalia, succeed? At Baraawe, on the Somalian coast, what was reportedly a team of Navy SEALs approached a house, looking for a leader of the Shabab, the group responsible for killing dozens of people at Nariobi’s Westgate mall just weeks ago. (On Sunday night, the Times reported that the target was a Kenyan with a Somali family background who went by the name Ikrimah.) They didn’t get him; an unnamed official told the Washington Post that they “disengaged after inflicting some al-Shabab casualties”—how many isn’t clear. Nothing disastrous happened; it just wasn’t quite finished.