NSA phone surveillance program exposes divisions in both parties

By Steve Peoples

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — While some leading Democrats are reluctant to condemn the dragnet surveillance of Americans' phone records, the Republican Party has begun to embrace a libertarian shift opposing the spy agency's broad powers. But the lines are not drawn in the traditional way.

The Republican National Committee and civil libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have joined liberals like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side of the debate — a striking departure from the aggressive national security policies that have defined the Republican Party for generations.

On the other side, defending surveillance programs created under the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama, are Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the House and Senate leadership of both parties.

As a result, the debate about whether to continue the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance tactics has highlighted intraparty divisions that could transform the politics of national security. The split in each party could have practical and political consequences ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. There are already signs that the debate is seeping into the next presidential contest.

Speaking Tuesday to New Hampshire voters, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., cited the spy agency's surveillance methods as another example of broad overreach in what he called Obama's "imperial presidency." Issa called for reforms that would ensure American people are represented during secret court proceedings that decide the scope of the NSA surveillance. Obama has called for more oversight, too, and Issa stopped short of endorsing the plan to eliminate the bulk collection program.

Congress may address government surveillance this spring in one of its last major moves before members head home to focus on the November elections. But if Congress punts the surveillance debate to next year, it would resurface just as the presidential primary campaigns are beginning.

The bulk collection of Americans' phone records was authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Details of the program were secret until June when a former NSA systems analyst, Edward Snowden, leaked classified documents that spelled out the scope of the government's activities. The bulk collection provision in the law is set to expire June 1, 2015, unless Congress acts to renew it.

More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have become less willing to support invasive surveillance tactics in the name of national security. Recent polls show a sharp decline in public support for the NSA programs.

The Obama administration justifies continuing the surveillance program, in part, by pointing to Congress' continued approval and support. In an effort to win back public trust, Obama has called for some changes that would provide more privacy protections and transparency but not end the program.

Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic favorite should she seek the presidency, has been virtually silent on the NSA debate for months. Last fall she called for a "full, comprehensive discussion" about the practices but also defended the surveillance. "From my own experience, the information-gathering and analyzing has proven very important and useful in a number of instances," she said. A Clinton spokesman declined to offer further comment last week.

Paul, a prospective Republican presidential hopeful and tea party favorite, contrasted Clinton's position with his own aggressive opposition to Bush-era intelligence programs, as polls suggest that a growing majority of Republicans — tea party supporters in particular — are deeply skeptical of the federal government.

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