Milbank: The left turns compliant on violating civil liberties
WASHINGTON — Where have all the liberals gone?
President Obama, who as a Democratic senator accused the Bush administration of violating civil liberties in the name of security, now vigorously defends his own administration’s collection of Americans’ phone records and Internet activities. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he thinks Congress has done sufficient intelligence oversight. His evidence? Opinion polls.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi defended the programs’ legality and said she wants Edward Snowden prosecuted for leaking details of the secret operations. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, accused Snowden of treason and defended false testimony given to her committee by the director of national intelligence, who in March had denied the programs’ existence.
With some exceptions, progressive lawmakers and the liberal commentariat have been passive and acquiescent toward the secret spying programs.
When libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation two weeks ago to curb the surveillance powers, he had no co-sponsors. When he held a news conference last week to unveil a lawsuit claiming the surveillance is unconstitutional, five members of Congress joined him — all Republicans.
I kept looking for liberal dissent — and then, on Wednesday morning, the news wires reported that a group called Voice of Resistance was meeting outside the Capitol, where demonstrators would proclaim Snowden a hero and flog an effigy of Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, one of the first to brand Snowden a traitor. I arrived at the appointed place and time but found no protest. Instead, there were six journalists and a lone demonstrator, who was wearing an anti-abortion baseball cap. He told me the group was actually a right-wing outfit. “The others are parking the car,” he explained, before turning the topic to Rush Limbaugh.
Polling last week by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center produced discouraging evidence that Democrats have shed their suspicion of government overreach now that one of their own is in charge. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats say that terrorism investigations should trump privacy as the government’s main concern, compared with 51 percent in 2006, when the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program had come to light. Then, 37 percent of Democrats found the NSA’s actions acceptable, compared with 64 percent now. (Republicans went in the other direction, suddenly becoming more privacy-conscious.)
Certainly, there are differences between now and then. Today, the program operates under court supervision and has at least the veneer of congressional approval (the administration circumvents the law’s requirement that only “relevant” records can be collected by claiming that all phone records of all Americans are relevant). And it remains to be seen whether Snowden is a true whistleblower or somebody who means his country harm.
Yet it is jarring to see the left so compliant now that the surveillance has been sanctioned by a Democratic president. Even if the programs ultimately prove defensible, isn’t it worth finding out what they really are, before liberals accept a suspension of civil liberties they may come to regret?
The weakness of the liberals’ argument for standing down was displayed by Reid, who assured reporters last week that Senate intelligence committee members “have done their very utmost, in my opinion, to conduct oversight. And that’s why the American people, in polls — two polls that I saw today — support what is happening with trying to stop terrorists from doing bad things to us.”
While Reid tests the political winds to determine which constitutional rights Americans should have, those who should be overseeing the program are instead defending it with a just-trust-me logic. Feinstein declared that “these programs are within the law.” The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland promised that “we’re not violating any constitutional rights.” Both said they’d like to see more about the program declassified, but their past efforts to produce more disclosure have been weak.
There are a few Democrats who have upheld the party’s tradition of championing civil liberties — such as Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), who has devised a bill with conservative Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to curtail the program, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced legislation backed by 11 other senators requiring more disclosure of secret court rulings.
But the Conyers bill is likely to go nowhere in the House, and Reid was cool to the Merkley proposal, saying only that “I’ll be happy to take a look.”
If he does look, he’ll find that they’re doing what progressives should do: Protecting the people from a too-secretive government.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.
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