Why the NSA revelations aren’t like the IRS scandal or Benghazi for Obama

The revelations this week about the National Security Agency's sweeping phone and Internet surveillance efforts have become THE dominant news story. Want evidence? Take a glance at Friday's newspaper front pages.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, in this January 29, 2010 file photo. (Saul Loeb/AFP Getty Images)
National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, in this January 29, 2010 file photo. (Saul Loeb/AFP Getty Images)

But despite all of the attention it is getting, the new details are not likely to present the Obama administration with the same kind political headaches in Washington imposed by the IRS scandal, Benghazi attacks, and the Justice Department's scrutiny of journalists. Here's why:

1. Congress isn't pouncing on PRISM: Lawmakers were pretty quiet Friday about the news that the NSA and FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in an effort to track foreign targets. Given 1) The sensitive nature of the material at issue and 2) The fact that lawmakers were briefed on the program, it's difficult for many of them to use the matter as a political cudgel.

In remarks Friday, Obama mentioned time and again the extent to which Congress was looped in.

"With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so, I think at the outset, it's important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing," Obama said.

And Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) was sharply critical of Obama’s news conference, saying he has taken the whole thing “very lightly.” But Merkley's outspoken response was an exception on Capitol Hill Friday.

In the case of the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, lawmakers immediately demanded answers about why they weren't told and raised questions about whether they were misled. When it comes to the NSA developments, lawmakers are a lot more culpable. And that makes it nearly impossible for them to wage a widespread attack campaign against the president.

2. On phone surveillance, Obama's been getting bipartisan reinforcements: On the matter of the NSA obtaining phone records, both Republicans and Democrats lined up behind the Obama administration's decision.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said the NSA phone records collection helped thwart a significant case of terrorism in the United States “within the last few years.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) defended the secret program, too.

Not all the input from Congress was positive. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), for example, said he "did everything short of leaking classified information” to bring attention to the matter. And Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said Friday that broad telephone and Internet surveillance "bothers" him.

But again, compared to the widespread anger that was stoked on Capitol Hill over the IRS and the united anger that was stoked in GOP circles about Benghazi, the NSA fallout has been strikingly different so far.

3. The public outcry may end up deeper than it is wide: Civil libertarians are crying foul, but what about the rest of the country? We'll find out in the coming days and weeks with polls that will inevitably be conducted on the matter. But for context, it's important to note the data we have now.

Sixty-eight percent of the public said it's more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal privacy, while 26 percent said it was more important to avoid intruding on privacy, according to a November 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll. The sentiment crossed party lines, with 69 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans saying the government should investigate threats.

Generally speaking, polls over the past decade have shown broad support for wiretapping phones of suspected terrorists.

On the other hand, an April CNN/ORC International poll showed that six in 10 Americans said they are more worried about new anti-terrorism policies that restrict civil liberties than they are about a failure to enact new strong anti-terrorism laws.

None of this is to say the revelations are not serious and worthy of further scrutiny. Nor is it to suggest that Obama won't face heat from critics. He's getting an earful from civil libertarians and others who are already fed up with the administration. It's clearly a new and unwelcome distraction for the president. But for now at least, it doesn't look as potentially damaging as some of the other things on Obama's plate.

Scott Clement, a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this post.

Updated at 5:19 p.m. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Scott Clement · June 7, 2013