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NSA surveillance exposes political party divisions

February 18, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The debate roiling the U.S. political landscape about whether to continue the dragnet surveillance of Americans’ phone records is highlighting divisions within the Democratic and Republican parties, creating splits in each party that could have consequences ahead of the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest.

While some leading Democrats have been reluctant to condemn the National Security Agency’s tactics, a growing number of Republicans have begun to embrace a libertarian shift opposing the spy agency’s broad surveillance powers — a striking departure from the aggressive national security policies that have defined the Republican Party for generations.

The lines are drawn but not in the traditional way. The Republican National Committee, leaders of the party’s libertarian wing like Sen. Rand Paul and liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren are on one side of the debate. And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and the congressional leadership are on the other side, defending the Obama administration’s surveillance programs as necessary to prevent terrorism.

Congress may address government surveillance this spring in one of its last major moves before members head home to focus on the November elections. But if Congress puts off the surveillance debate to this time next year, it would resurface just as the presidential primary campaigns are beginning.

At issue is the bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records, authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Details of the program were secret until June when a former NSA systems analyst, Edward Snowden, leaked classified documents that spelled out the monumental scope of the government’s activities. The bulk collection provision in the law is set to expire on June 1, 2015, unless Congress acts to renew or change the program sooner.

More than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans have become less willing to support invasive surveillance tactics in the name of national security. Recent polls show a sharp decline in public support for the NSA programs created during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush and continued under Democratic President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration justifies the surveillance program, in part, by pointing to Congress’ continued approval and support. But the president also has called for some changes in an effort to win back public trust that would provide more privacy protections and transparency but not end the program completely.

Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic favorite should she seek the presidency, has been virtually silent on the NSA debate for months.

Paul, a prospective Republican presidential hopeful and favorite of the small government tea party movement, contrasted Clinton’s position with his own aggressive opposition to Bush-era intelligence programs, as polls suggest that a growing majority of Republicans — conservative tea party supporters in particular — are deeply skeptical of the federal government.

Last week, Paul filed a lawsuit against Obama and others in the administration over the so-called 215 program.

The Republican National Committee in January approved a resolution “to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.”

There was an immediate backlash from Bush-era Republican intelligence officials who described the resolution in a letter to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as a dangerous “recipe for partisan oblivion.” Other Republicans also pushed back against the intraparty shift.

Rubio said this week that “we need to be careful about weakening” the nation’s surveillance capabilities. The rising Republican star said Americans’ privacy expectations and rights need to be protected.

There was an unexpectedly close vote in the Republican-controlled House last July on a measure that would have ended the bulk collection of phone records. The amendment failed, but it was the first chance for lawmakers to take a stand on the secret surveillance program since the Snowden leaks.

A Pew Research Center poll found last month found that Republicans, fueled by conservative tea party supporters, now disapprove of the program by 56 percent to 37 percent. Democrats are almost evenly split on the program — 46 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove.

Facing increasingly vocal activists at home, nine Republicans who didn’t vote or voted against the amendment last year have signed onto bipartisan legislation that would end the bulk collection surveillance program.

Lawmakers are expected to get another chance to weigh in this spring when Republican House leaders plan to allow a vote on an amendment to a Defense Department bill that would curtail some of the NSA’s surveillance authority. If approved, the measure would give Republican members political cover with their party’s most aggressive NSA critics.

The Democratic Party, too, faces intraparty divisions, as progressive members are more likely to be aligned with tea party Republicans than Clinton and Obama on this issue.

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report. Peoples reported from Boston. Associated Press writer Connie Cass contributed to this report.

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