Fissures in support for the Surveillance State

By SB Anderson

Last week all but certainly will be looked back at as a watershed week in shifting support for the Surveillance State by not only U.S. citizens, but members of Congress.

For those who’ve been in eyes-half-open mode because it’s Summer and want to catch up, The New York Times today has a must-read on the politics and cross-party partnerships behind last week’s surprising oh-so-close vote in the House that would have killed funding for the National Security Administration’s telephone data collection, exposed by Edward Snowden.

Two quotes that stand out:

“There is a growing sense that things have really gone a-kilter here.”

“The time has come to stop it, and the way we stop it is to approve this amendment.”

The first, from U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who is helping craft a bill “to significantly rein in N.S.A. telephone surveillance,” the NYT story says.

The second is from someone who was a force behind the Patriot Act and who is helping Lofgren on that bill. — U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. His very brief (and unexpected) remarks — seven sentences — before the House vote last week were seen as pivotal.

Govt Anti-Terror PoliciesMeantime, new research data shows the opinion shift among Americans. Almost half of those polled from July 17-21 said their “greater concern about government anti-terrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported on Friday.

That was a 15-point jump since 2010, when the question was last asked. “This is the first time a plurality has expressed greater concern about civil liberties than security since the question was first asked in 2004.”

Nearly 3 in 5 of those adults surveyed — 56% — said courts aren’t providing the safety net needed for government data collection. “An even larger percentage (70%) believes that the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism,” Pew said.

Politically, a clear lean toward more support for civil liberties vs. national security since 2010 is pretty much across the board, as the chart below shows. Particularly noteworthy is the shift in the civil liberties v. national security view by Tea Party Republicans.

For the media, the public remains divided over how aggressive journalists should be in reporting on secret methods used to fight terrorism — 47% yes, 47% no. That’s the same as 2006. However, there has been a partisan shift, as Republicans now are much more supportive of an aggressive media role (+17 points), while Democrats have retreated (-14 points). See chart below.

In a column today, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, whose release of Snowden’s inside information along with the Washington Post detonated the current NSA and civil liberties controversy, took note of the shift in the Venn diagram of civil liberties and national security that Pew’s survey revealed.

As I’ve repeatedly said, the only ones defending the NSA at this point are the party loyalists and institutional authoritarians in both parties. That’s enough for the moment to control Washington outcomes – as epitomized by the unholy trinity that saved the NSA in the House last week: Pelosi, John Bohener and the Obama White House – but it is clearly not enough to stem the rapidly changing tide of public opinion.

(Note: If you’re interested, Pew has details on how it conducted its survey).