WASHINGTON -- The contours of the debate around security and civil liberties that began the day after the 9/11 attacks have been steadily shifting ever since, but have recently become contorted in the wake of revelations about the depth and breadth of the National Security Agency's secret surveillance. The debate coincides and overlaps with disagreement over indefinite detention, the use of force abroad and, specifically, the employment of drones in a sprawling array of countries in the so-called global war on terror.
The debate has taken on a partisan bent, with grassroots Democrats broadly lining up in surveys to defend the administration, and Republicans charging that presidential authority goes too far. But among the leaders in Washington and the media, alliances are scrambling, with the greatest dissension within conservative ranks.
The battle inside the GOP has left leading tea party figures such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh in uncomfortable alignment with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats; Michael Moore; Glenn Greenwald; Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. They are pitted against establishment figures from both sides, such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), and diplomat Richard Haass.
Democrats, owing partly to the simple fact that they control the levers of executive power, are more likely to back the extensive use of that authority. Two recent surveys differed in how respondents reacted to the NSA's surveillance programs, but they found similar patterns of partisanship.
In a HuffPost/YouGov poll, Republicans and independents were most likely to say that collecting Americans' phone records is unnecessarily intrusive, by a 65 percent to 17 percent margin for Republicans and by a 62 percent to 17 percent margin for independents. But Democrats in the poll were more divided, with 39 percent saying collecting phone records is unnecessarily intrusive and 33 percent saying it is justified to combat terrorism.
In a Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all supported the NSA monitoring, but Democrats were by far the most likely to do so. Sixty-four percent of Democrats called the surveillance acceptable, compared with 53 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans.
That wasn't the case when former President George W. Bush was in office. A similar ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in 2006 during the Bush administration -- after similar revelations that the government was collecting Americans' phone and email data -- found that 75 percent of Republicans and just 37 percent of Democrats said it was acceptable for the NSA to "secretly [listen] in on phone calls and [read] emails without court approval."
Republicans who were then on the receiving end of Democratic criticism, particularly that dished out by then-candidate Barack Obama, are piqued to see so many now standing up for the national security state. "This so similar to the Cheney doctrine, it's not even funny, and nobody's talking about that," a former Republican leadership aide said on background. "At least Republicans are consistent. The left should be enraged. He promised something better than this. And it's fucking the same, it's the same arrogance."
The GOP has historically been a coalition that included staunch isolationists, an outgrowth of a don't-tread-on-me philosophy. The purge began in the run up to World War I and was fully complete by the 1980s, as the GOP captured "Reagan Democrats" who wanted tough talk against the Soviet Union and rebelled against the counter-cultural opposition to the Vietnam War that had seeped into the Democratic Party. The neoconservative movement, once led by Sen. Scoop Jackson, a Cold War Democrat from Washington state who had been a favorite to win the 1972 presidential nomination, drifted fully over to the GOP, and by the time the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress, the GOP gave it a full-throated embrace. A handful of Democrats stood up to it, but few wanted to make a political fight out of it.
But the tea party wave in 2010 brought in a new batch of Republicans who had no connections to the post-9/11 legislative flurry and a deep distrust of government. The first time House leaders put an extension of the Patriot Act on the floor, they were shocked when their members blocked it.
Paul has become the base of opposition to the overreach of the national security state, solidifying his place with his 13-hour filibuster on drones. He has extended that critique to include the NSA's surveillance, and has angered plenty of top Republicans in the process. That debate is likely to continue playing out over the next several years, as Paul flirts with a presidential bid, lifting his national profile and that of the civil liberties movement he's leading.
The GOP's division on national security and civil liberties was summed up nicely Monday by Rush Limbaugh, who told listeners he was "conflicted" on whether the source of the NSA revelations, leaker Edward Snowden, should be punished.
"I must tell you, I am conflicted about this in a number of ways," he said. "The regime is saying this guy's gotta be silenced, this guy's gotta be prosecuted. And the media, they're going back and forth on how to deal with this, 'cause this has got a lot of people shaken up, because [President] Obama represented a panacea, if you will. Some of these people really drank that Kool-Aid and believed it.
"We had an idealistic utopia coming that this was stuff exclusive to Bush, all this torture and all this spying and all this warrantless wiretap searching and the Supreme Court deciding who's the president," he continued. "These people were consumed with this rage. It was literally eating them alive. So Obama comes along -- leave the racial aspect out of it -- Obama comes along and promises none of this is gonna go on and he's gonna get to the bottom of it. He's gonna stop it. He's gonna expose it, and the country's gonna get its respect."
Limbaugh, after a digression about Obama's race protecting him from impeachment, made the argument that the NSA overreach is not a conservative or tough-on-terror reaction to 9/11, but is the consequence of liberalism's basic philosophy.
"I think that the opportunity still exists and the focus of attention ought to be: this is what you get with liberals," he suggested. "This is what you get with liberalism -- or Democrats if you want -- but this kind of big government, this kind of overreach, this kind of insecurity, this kind of violation of privacy, this is exactly what you get. This is who liberals are. That, to me, needs to be the message."
Meanwhile David Brooks, the man in charge of explaining conservatism to liberals in the pages of The New York Times, lectured Snowden about trusting the government.
"Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good," Brooks wrote. "This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse."
Liberal writers Jeffrey Toobin and Joe Klein, meanwhile, are lined up with Brooks. Toobin slammed Snowden as a criminal narcissist. The liberal shift represents a realignment that has been underway since 9/11, but was hastened by the presidential candidacy of former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Facing charges of a lack of patriotism, Democrats nominated a war hero, pinned flags to their breasts and began talking in bellicose terms. Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq made sure to be clear that they supported the one in Afghanistan.
When Obama ran on that platform he stunned his base by following through on his promise to ramp up the war in Afghanistan while winding down the one in Iraq. Meanwhile, he broadened the drone war, launched strikes across the globe and instead of closing Guantanamo, closed the State Department office in charge of closing Guantanamo. He recently vowed to reopen it, in a speech aimed to spell out what limits he saw to his power to wage war.
Klein put the centrist position most succinctly, slamming the "civil liberties freakout."
"Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with Marc Thiessen, hell has frozen over and he’s on the right track about the National Security Agency–leaks nonscandal," Klein wrote at Time.com. "Those who see the federal government as a vast corporate conspiracy or a criminal enterprise -- in other words, paranoids of the left and right -- are concerned about this. More moderate sorts should also have cause for concern -- especially if a rogue government, like Nixon’s, were in power."