Out of all the scandals to befall the Obama administration, former contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency surveillance have stoked a lasting sense of outrage among strong majorities across the political spectrum.
A July Washington Post-ABC News poll found 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans, as well as 76 percent of independents, agreeing that NSA surveillance of phone records and Internet traffic violates Americans’ privacy rights. A late July poll from the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that only 30 percent believe there are currently appropriate limits on data collected and 70 percent think the government is using collected information for purposes other than fighting terrorism. And new details from the Snowden leaks and supplemental reporting keep dribbling out, provoking questions about how forthright the administration has been with Congress and the American people regarding the extent and uses of surveillance programs.
And yet Republicans seem to have ceded the scandal to a handful of civil libertarian Democrats and GOPs instead of wholeheartedly picking up the hot-button issue and running with it.
In fact, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was quick to label Snowden a “traitor,” putting GOP leadership in the White House’s corner shortly after the scandal broke.
President Obama, Boehner said in early June, outlined “these are important national security programs to help keep Americans safe, and give us tools to fight the terrorist threat that we face.”
A late July amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to block funding for the NSA’s mass collection of phone metadata nearly passed the House, failing 205-217 but alarming many on the Hill and in the White House in the process. Ninety-four Republicans joined with 111 Democrats in voting for the amendment, bringing together unlikely allies such as Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Among the “no” votes were allies Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-N.Y.).
But the fiercest, most consistent opposition in Congress has come from a small core of privacy advocates, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Amash, and Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
In lieu of any concerted focus from the national GOP on the NSA scandal, lawmakers at the state and local levels are trying to make their voices heard in Washington.
“I think it’s incumbent on all elected officials in every state legislature to weigh in on issues where we’re not seeing federal action,” California Assemblyman Travis Allen (R ) told PJM today.
Allen had just come from a Judiciary Committee hearing where his resolution urging Washington to respect Americans’ civil liberties was tabled as only four of the 10 committee members cast a vote.
“Resolved by the Assembly and the Senate of the State of California, jointly, that the Legislature of the State of California urges Congress and the President of the United States to make the protection of civil liberties and national security equal priorities, to immediately discontinue any practices that are contrary to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and to instruct our national security agencies to ensure that national security will be achieved without invasive violations of civil liberties; and be it further resolved, that this is not a partisan issue, but rather a constant concern that has been in the hearts of every American since the creation of our great nation and the ratification of the United States Constitution,” states AJR 26.
The resolution drew “huge” support as the assemblyman heard from people all over the country sharing “encouragement and, quite frankly, outrage.”
But within the statehouse, Allen saw division and heard from many lawmakers who have issues with domestic surveillance but debated whether a state should be wading in. He also noticed “a lot of apprehension” among Democrats who were wary of being critical of the administration, though the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in as a “huge champion across party lines.”
Some legislators said it was a timely issue, but it was “a bit early to weigh in.”
“It’s never too early to protect our constitutional freedoms,” Allen said. “It’s never too early to protect our privacy.”