At his August 9 news conference, President Obama said "People may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that, if [they] haven't already taken place, take place in a future administration or as technology is developed further." Pretty tentative language for an issue that's exploding on the political scene.
For the first time since 9/11, according to the July Pew poll, more Americans say they are concerned that the government's anti-terrorism policies "have gone too far in restricting civil liberties" than say that they "have not gone far enough to protect the country." Concern about civil liberties has jumped from 27 percent in 2010 to 47 percent today. That's the impact of the Edward Snowden revelations.
Government surveillance is a rare issue on which there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats. The issue splits both parties. Democrats say the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties by 43 percent to 38 percent. Republicans? Same thing, by 42 percent to 38 percent.
Last month, the House of Representatives came astonishingly close to de-funding the entire surveillance program. The amendment failed narrowly, by a vote of 205 to 217. Despite warnings from the White House that the measure would "hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools," 111 House Democrats voted for it (57 percent). But so did 94 House Republicans (41 percent).
Two different things are going on here.
Among Democrats, the issue is civil liberties. It's an issue Democrats have been concerned about since the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11. Thirty percent of House Democrats voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. Nearly two thirds of House Democrats voted against reauthorization of the measure in 2006 and again in 2011, even though Obama had become President.
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) criticized the reforms proposed by President Obama last week as "too little too late." He told the New York Times, "They are not sufficient to address serious concerns about possible violations of the law and about dragnet surveillance."
The big surprise is the growing criticism from Republicans. The issue is splitting the Republican Party wide open: the party establishment, including national security-minded Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, versus libertarian Republicans like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
Graham warned on CNN that gutting the surveillance program "makes us much less safe, and you're putting our nation at risk." Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, pleaded with his colleagues to support the program asking, "Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on September 11th?"
What's driving the Republican revolt? Answer: the Tea Party. The Pew poll reveals that criticism of the surveillance program as having "gone too far in restricting civil liberties" increased fastest among Tea Party supporters, from 20 percent in 2010 to 55 percent now. Among non-Tea Party Republicans, the increase was only 12 percent and among Democrats, nine. Tea party Republicans now say they disapprove of the surveillance program by nearly two to one.
Is the Tea Party suddenly embracing civil liberties? Are they rushing to join the ACLU? More likely, what's driving them is hatred and suspicion of big government. Especially big government run by President Obama. In the Pew survey, nearly 90 percent of Tea Party Republicans said they believe the data gathered by the National Security Agency is used for purposes other than to investigate terrorism. A third of them volunteered the response that the data was being used by the administration to target political opponents.
The stage is now set for a showdown in the 2016 Republican presidential race between Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie. Paul became a hero to the Tea Party in March when he delivered his 13-hour filibuster against the Obama administration's drone policy. Last month, Christie attacked "this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now" as "dangerous."
Establishment Republicans consider Paul's views a direct challenge to the national security tradition that has dominated the Republican Party since President Eisenhower. It's hard to imagine John McCain or Dick Cheney supporting Paul, even if he were the Republican nominee in 2016.
Could Paul win the nomination? He is narrowly ahead in a poll of New Hampshire Republican primary voters. Patrick Hynes, a New Hampshire political consultant and former adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney, gives the advantage to Paul over Christie in New Hampshire. Rand Paul's father came in second in the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary.
At his news conference, the president defended his surveillance policy saying, "We show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think to do." In other words, trust me. A growing number of Americans, particularly Republicans, simply don't.