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NSA Surveillance Fails To Rile Congress

The National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

President Obama says he welcomes a debate about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. So far, there's not much sign of one happening, at least on Capitol Hill.

Leading members of Congress remain largely supportive of the effort to "protect America," as some senators have characterized broad tracking of Internet and phone activity.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called Edward Snowden, the source of leaks about the NSA activities, a "traitor." Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who is also the Democratic National Committee chair, called Snowden a coward who "should be extradited, arrested and prosecuted."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said that members of Congress have had plenty of opportunities to learn about surveillance programs prior to the leak through briefings.

"The people who feel best informed about it and are most strong in their position have already staked out a position in favor of the program," says Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists.

As yet, no member of Congress who was not already closely associated with the civil liberties cause has stepped forward with severe criticism.

"Some large number of members of Congress would just as soon avoid that [debate about the government's legal authority]," says Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, which advocates for strong civil liberties protections. "There's no doubt about that."

Voices Of Concern

There have been some voices critical of the blanket authority the administration believes it has to track domestic communications.

"This changes the very character of American society and what it means to be an American," Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey said in a statement. "It is also a very wasteful, inefficient way to try to protect the safety of Americans."

The ACLU on Tuesday filed a lawsuit, complaining that the phone tracking program violates both First Amendment rights to free speech and Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Tuesday that would require disclosure of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions or, when secrecy is necessary, at least summaries.

"We expect the disclosures about the ongoing surveillance programs over the past week will lead senators to rethink whether the opinions of this court should be kept secret," says Jamal Raad, spokesman for Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Aides to other Hill Democrats say that it's too soon to tell how Congress will react, because more information may still be forthcoming.

"There are some members in a position to make a difference, who will insist that the situation be clarified, that there will be a public congressional debate about whether or not these programs should be allowed," Martin says.

A group of 13 senators on Wednesday called for a full investigation.

What Polls Suggest

A big question, says Aftergood, is whether there will be calls from the public to alter the NSA's methods, or at least demand greater oversight.

So far, public opinion polls have been mixed. A CBS News poll conducted June 9-10 showed that 58 percent disapprove of surveillance of "ordinary Americans," although 75 percent approved of tracking terrorists.

A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed 62 percent agreed that secret government collection of phone records is an "unacceptable and alarming invasion of privacy rights."

The more recent polls seemed to contradict a Pew poll released on Monday, which showed that 56 percent saw tracking of "millions of Americans" as an acceptable tool against terrorism.

The differences in wording may be crucial, says Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"In the polling after 9/11, majorities didn't want their own privacy or phone records investigated, but they were quite willing to cast a broader net," she says.

Limited Public Reaction

In any event, the phones have not been ringing off the hook at congressional offices. Americans are not yet, at least, storming the Capitol in protest.

That means that Snowden's efforts to alert the public to the dangers of such wide surveillance could ultimately backfire, says Aftergood, a critic of the NSA programs.

"The intelligence community can say we didn't want this to be made public, but it was, and people shrugged, and now we take it as an explicit endorsement," he says. "That would be an ironic outcome."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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