The scary contradictions of the NSA mess.
In 2011, Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner stated that “as author of the Patriot Act,” he “applaud[ed] the House and Senate” for extending provisions of the controversial legislation allowing investigators broad powers to monitor and seize “any tangible things” related to a terrorism investigation. Sensenbrenner is now apparently surprised at how his legislation was used by the National Security Agency: “I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act.”
Sensenbrenner was responding to documents leaked to The Guardian by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former contract worker at the NSA, which revealed a massive government data-mining program. The vague language of the Patriot Act, say the bill’s critics, made the massive expansion of the surveillance state both possible and inevitable. Yet, the congressman had previously shrugged off such concerns, arguing in 2006 that “congressional negotiators added more than 30 civil-liberty safeguards not included in current law to ensure that the Patriot Act’s authorities would not be abused in the future.”
Sensenbrenner isn’t alone in changing his tune. According to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center, Americans are remarkably fickle in their attitudes about domestic surveillance. During the Bush administration, only 37 percent of Democrats found NSA spying programs “acceptable,” while 75 percent of Republicans backed eavesdropping on “people suspected of involvement with terrorism … without first getting court approval to do so.” The same question, asked days after Snowden’s revelations, saw 64 percent of Democrats now backing NSA snooping, with Republican support dropping to 53 percent.
The victory of partisan opportunism over moral principle is hardly surprising; the American people, after all, take their cues from party leaders and professional ideologues. In fact, Snowden told The Guardian he was moved to leak the top secret documents after President Obama “continued with the policies of his predecessor.”
Indeed, on the campaign trail in 2008, then-Senator Obama rapped the Bush administration for offering “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.” Last week, Obama used the “false choice” argument he once bemoaned, telling Americans that they “can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” In the NSA debate, it appears, intellectual consistency is hard to find.
From our June 21, 2013, issue; Spying As They Like It.