The real surveillance story

December 28, 2012

The Senate over the last couple of days has passed reauthorization of FISA, giving the government continued ability to spy on Americans without limitations urged by supporters of civil liberties. 


Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Reuters)

The puzzle here isn’t why Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and a relatively small group of Senate Democrats have opposed amendments to strengthen citizen protections against government overreach — for better or worse, they have the same position that they did when George W. Bush was president. Nor is the puzzle why Barack Obama flipped after becoming president (or, actually, after his nomination); anyone waiting for a president who stands up strongly for civil liberties during wartime, or really at all, is going to wait a long, long, time, or at least until James Madison returns. This is not to say that opponents of these policies shouldn’t be attacking Obama, Feinstein and other Democrats who support them. It’s just not hard to explain why they do.

No, the mystery here is on the Republican side. Only Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah opposed final passage and supported limiting amendments. The rest of the Republicans continued their previous support for an intrusive government. And yet not only did tea partiers supposedly care about this sort of thing, but also even without that one would suppose that many Republicans would simply reflexively oppose whatever the Obama administration proposed. Even if they had supported it when Bush was president. Even if Bush administration officials still support it. 

I don’t really have an explanation to propose; I just think it’s worth paying some attention to. The truth is that if we assume that the chief executive is always going to tend to favor executive branch ability to do what it wants, then it’s up to Congress to do something about it. But if one political party is virtually unanimous in favor of it no matter what the political situation, then it’s going to be very hard to find the votes to rein in the executive. A lot of people hate reflexive partisanship, but this is one case which demonstrates why sometimes a dose of it can be a pretty good thing.

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Rachel Manteuffel | December 28, 2012