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June 07, 2013 10:54 AM Could There (Finally) Be a Backlash Against Domestic Surveillance?

By John Sides

There has been a lot of conversation about Glenn Greenwald’s story showing that National Security Agency is regularly collecting information about millions of phone calls from Verizon.  Marc Ambinder provides some useful background here.  So is this news—perhaps combined with the government’s investigations of the Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen—enough to spark a broader backlash against the government’s domestic surveillance?

I am skeptical, for two reasons.  For one, most Americans do not express much anxiety about domestic surveillance.  In a recent article (gated), political scientists Samuel J. Best, Brian S. Krueger, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz reported the results of a 2007 survey in which they explicitly asked whether Americans were anxious, worried, or scared about “the government monitoring the activities of people like you.”  Only about 30% of Americans said that they were “somewhat” or “very” anxious, worried, or scared.  Best and colleagues note that this is more than some commentators and scholars have suggested.  The question, though, is whether it is “enough” to engender a backlash.  I have not seen comparable questions asked in more recent surveys, but my guess is that there is not a great deal more anxiety.

What would create more of a public anxiety would be a concerted pushback from Congress against the NSA, and especially a bipartisan pushback.  As I wrote regarding drone attacks, real public concern about civil liberties is most likely to arise when elected leaders express concern.  But instead of a bipartisan pushback, I am seeing more evidence of a bipartisan shrug.  Diane Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss—hardly peas in a pod—lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they’re pretty sanguine:

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that there’s nothing unusual about a reported program allowing the National Security Agency to obtain Verizon phone records…

The story goes on to cite Jeff Merkley, who does express concern.  But note that he seems to be asking only for more information about FISA court opinions, not arguing that the program is obviously problematic on its face.  Even John Boehner, someone who rarely passes up the chance to take on the president, had remarkably little to say as well.  The problem for members of Congress is that information about this program was already available to many of them:

Feinstein says the business records provisions were “widely debated” both in the Intelligence Committee and during floor debate to reauthorize the provision in prior years. She distributed copies of two “Dear Colleague” letters to senators from February 2010 and 2011 saying that materials were available for review by senators in the committee’s office.
“We invite each Senator to read this classified report in our committee spaces in Room 211, Hart Senate Office Building. The Attorney General and DNI have offered to make Justice Department and Intelligence Community personnel available to meet with any Member who has questions,” Chambliss wrote in 2011. “We will be pleased to make our staff available for the same purpose.”

Congress is complicit too.  And so my guess is that members of Congress will not rush to demand that the NSA stand down.  Certainly that was Rand Paul’s experience after his filibuster against drones.  (Remember that?)

Undoubtedly, there is concerted opposition among civil libertarians to much of our “national security state,” and much concern among journalists about the investigations of the AP and Rosen.  And I don’t mean to suggest that there is no reason for concern.  (This is not a post about the merits or demerits of the government’s actions.)  But the presence of a fairly sturdy bipartisan elite consensus on domestic surveillance—whether it is motivated by partisanship (Republicans defended Bush, Democrats defend Obama) or by a sincere belief in the value of the policy—makes it hard to imagine that revelations about the NSA-Verizon agreement will lead to dramatic changes in policy.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.
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