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.”
Though the resolution won’t likely hit the floor this session, the assemblyman said he’ll keep working with Democrats and Republicans to forge bipartisan agreement on the need to protect privacy rights.
That negotiating promises to be as delicate a balance in the Golden State as in the District of Columbia, where pro-NSA allies also cross party lines — such as intelligence panel chairs Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
Allen said the reluctance of many GOPs to take up the Fourth Amendment cause stems from the traditional national security position of the Republican Party — though “what we’re seeing now is that the Obama administration has not only continued but expanded” programs started under President George W. Bush. “It really does cross over all party lines,” he said.
The California Republican noted “there is a huge national desire to protect all of our personal freedoms; I think the libertarian movement has drawn support from both sides of the political spectrum and has really captivated much of the youth.”
Indeed, polling has showed Obama taking a particularly noticeable hit in approval among young people as the NSA revelations continue to mushroom. Yet it’s still a hands-off scandal for many Republicans.
“It would seem that these values are naturally aligned with the Republican Party and forward-thinking leaders would do well to embrace the libertarian community and to embrace the things that really make our country great,” Allen said of privacy concerns.
The fact that Sensenbrenner has crossed from crafting the Patriot Act to decrying the NSA programs “tells you a lot about the nature of the debate and it tells you a lot about how good ideas can have unintended consequences.”
“After 9/11 there was a huge awareness of the need for national security,” Allen continued. “I think the Patriot Act’s authors are now coming to the realization while we do value our security we value our freedom more.”
An Orange County small-business owner in his first term, the assemblyman attributed some of the reluctance to stand up to the NSA programs to an “establishment mentality.”
“I think there is an establishment mentality that’s pervasive and it’s on both sides of the political spectrum, and it’s our job as interested citizens and as elected officials to always ask ourselves the larger questions of what’s at stake regardless of what may have been legalized before,” Allen said. “We have to ask ourselves what is the best way to protect our freedom while at the same time protecting ourselves from threats, both from foreign and domestic terrorists.”
And he disagrees with Boehner’s assessment of the onetime Booz Allen Hamilton contractor.
“I don’t think Snowden’s a traitor,” said Allen. “Without Snowden’s revelations we wouldn’t know the extent of this … this series of revelations have the potential to be huge benefits to our society and help us protect what’s important.”
The outrage coming from grass-roots America, regardless of party affiliation, is “a growing awareness in the country that this is not the sort of society I want to live in.”
“The society we live in is uniquely American,” Allen said. “This is why we choose to live in this country and that’s what makes our country great.”
“What if at end of every day every American had to report every phone call they made, every email? There’d be a revolt. That’s what’s happening now and happening for the past decade and it’s about time we stand up to it.”