WASHINGTON – On a quiet Friday afternoon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and more than a hundred other Democrats sent a letter to President Obama. It was about the National Security Agency’s wholesale spying on innocent Americans.
Two days earlier, on July 24, she and the entire Democratic leadership had been caught voting against a Republican bill that would have stopped the NSA’s retrievals and storage of our phone calls, emails, social network messages and GPS information.
Both Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, privately lobbied hard against the surprise bill of a GOP backbencher. It lost by just a dozen votes.
The office of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, last week released the letter to me containing names of all signatories in the wake of a tiff between Higgins and constituent Walter Simpson, retired green energy leader at the University at Buffalo and an activist with the Buffalo Peace Center. Simpson complained to Higgins about the Democrats’ position on NSA data mining, and said Higgins’ letter back to him was “trivial.” Briefly, Higgins told Simpson he’s concerned about the NSA but insisted the government sweeps help deter terrorism on our shores.
The July 26 leadership letter signed by Higgins and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, is much more substantive. Both were among the scores of Democrats who voted down the bill. The NSA surely knew about the Democrats’ letter, but hardly anyone else.
In their below-the-radar post to Obama, Democrats ask the president to ensure that Americans’ privacy and civil liberties are protected, whether the court system that allows this data mining needs revision, and how more oversight and transparency can be imposed on the NSA.
The letter is more than political insurance against the fury of the tiny group of legacy Democrats who care about the Constitution, or even know about it. It marks the treacherous path that conscientious Democrats must walk between the realities of Islamist terrorism, the blowback of another attack like 9/11 and the powerful business forces driving more and more illegal espionage on ordinary Americans.
Among the last group, maybe unwittingly, is the president. At his pre-Martha’s Vineyard press conference, Obama allowed he’s concerned about NSA excesses and said the government will take a look at them, but offered little substance.
At the press conference, Obama said Edward Snowden, who revealed the massive NSA sweeps and is hiding in Russia, could have revealed his objections through channels as a protected government whistle-blower. Washington Post reporter Joe Davidson says Snowden is not protected because Snowden was only a government contractor.
More formidable is the Republican right. The House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, wants it both ways. McCaul said Obama’s press conference was only “window dressing” and that the president has failed to adequately explain to Americans the virtues of the NSA programs, “which are legal.” Backing McCaul are people like Gen. Michael Hayden, former NSA head, and Michael Chertoff, who once headed the Department of Homeland Security as a protégé of former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y.
The Huffington Post reports Hayden and Chertoff are partners in a private consulting firm, the Chertoff Group. Chertoff, Huffington said, sits on the boards of “giant defense and security firms” and “has a lot to gain financially” from government security spending.
At week’s end, the Washington Post reported the NSA has broken legal guidelines “thousands of times a year” in the last two years. Meh. Gallup recently did a poll on the top 10 issues worrying Americans. NSA wasn’t even mentioned.