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June 12, 2013

NSA debate pits far left, right against the middle

WASHINGTON — Revelations of massive government collections of Americans’ phone and email records have reinvigorated an odd-couple political alliance of the far left and right.

A number of Democratic civil liberties activists, along with libertarian-leaning Republicans, say the government actions are too broad and don’t adequately protect citizens’ privacy.

But this unlikely coalition might have trouble doing anything more than spicing up the national debate. Solid majorities of Americans and their elected representatives appear to support the chief elements of the government’s secret data-gathering, and even some of Congress’ most outspoken, pro-limited-government tea partyers are wading cautiously into the discussions.

Among other things, the latest privacy-vs.-security struggle may test libertarianism’s clout within the Republican Party. In political circles, it’s a favorite topic since the tea party emerged, built largely on antipathy toward President Barack Obama’s major health care expansion.

“This is a marginal national security group within our party,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of those who call the government snooping unwarranted or unconstitutional. “I just don’t see how anybody gets elected as a Republican” by running to the “left of Obama on national security,” said Graham, one of the Senate’s most hawkish members.

Leading the libertarian charge is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has clashed with Graham on other issues, including the use of unmanned aircraft to kill terrorism suspects.

Paul told “Fox News Sunday” he would ask “all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies” and their customers to join a class-action lawsuit against surveillance techniques that he called “an extraordinary invasion of privacy.”

“Get a warrant and go after a terrorist, or a murderer or a rapist,” Paul said. “But don’t troll through a billion phone records every day. That is unconstitutional.”

Paul is weighing a possible presidential bid. His father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, drew a loyal libertarian following in his unsuccessful presidential campaigns.

The furor over security and privacy came with the disclosure — in unauthorized leaks to news organizations — of two far-reaching programs run by the National Security Agency. One gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records to — the administration says — search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies and gather all communications to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.

A handful of congressional liberals have raised complaints similar to Paul’s.

“I want our law enforcement people to be vigorous in going after terrorists,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who has long called himself a socialist, told MSNBC. “But I happen to believe they can do that without disregarding the Constitution.”

The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and it guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. The American Civil Liberties Union — often a target of conservatives’ derision — has filed a lawsuit saying the NSA programs violate those provisions.

Congressional leaders of both parties are mostly defending the surveillance programs. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was especially outspoken Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“I’ve been briefed on all of these programs,” Boehner said. “There are clear safeguards,” he said. “There’s no American who’s going to be snooped on, in any way, unless they’re in contact with some terrorists somewhere around the world.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week, “Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn’t anything that is brand new. It’s been going on for some seven years.” Reid said Congress will “try to make it better.”

It’s not unprecedented for liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans to join forces on issues that essentially bend the left-right spectrum into a circle. Such activists, for example, generally support gay marriage and, in some cases, marijuana legalization.

Those out-in-the-open issues, however, differ from the covert NSA surveillance matter. Public support for gay rights has grown dramatically, and drug legalization is a comparatively low-profile issue.

America was founded by people who railed against a British government they considered oppressive.  But Americans also want the federal government to protect them, a task that grew more daunting after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Some tea party-backed senators, who have joined Paul in other causes, are moving cautiously on the NSA matter.

“What we have seen so far is troubling,” but “at this point we don’t have a clear picture of what their policy is,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday.

Cruz sought to link the NSA matter to other scandals where Obama’s critics feel on safer ground. That includes the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of tea party-related groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“Given the pattern of misconduct we have seen with the IRS, given the pattern we have seen throughout the administration,” Cruz said, “their past actions do not engender trust.”

Even as some critics say anti-terrorism programs go too far in scooping up electronic records, others say they’ve done too little to thwart terrorist attacks. They cite the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings and the 2009 fatal shooting of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.

Cruz said both criticisms are warranted.

In the Boston and Fort Hood, cases, he said, “the administration was well aware of the terrorists long before the act of terrorism was committed,” yet, “for whatever reason, dropped the ball and didn’t act to prevent actual terrorists who took the lives of innocents.” Cruz said the government may have been “focusing more energy on casting the net wide and invading the privacy of law-abiding Americans rather than targeting the bad guys.”

A CBS News poll conducted June 9-10 showed that while most approve of government collection of phone records of Americans suspected of terrorist activity and Internet activities of foreigners, a majority disapproved of federal agencies collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans. Thirty percent agreed with the government’s assessment that the revelation of the programs would hurt the U.S.’ ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, while 57 percent said it would have no impact.

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Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington

 

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