The RNC and the Dead-Enders

If you’ve spent much time in political party conventions, you likely know that the resolution process largely serves as an opportunity for active members to vent. While party resolutions might represent where the ideological base of the party is, nothing prevents the elected leaders of the party to blow off resolutions (though at times resolutions are deemed toxic enough for leaders to undermine by parliamentary stunts).

Which is why I find the response to the RNC’s resolution renouncing the NSA’s “Surveillance Prorgam” (it mentions PRISM and, implicitly, the phone dragnet) so interesting.

There are responses like this, from Kevin Drum, who spins it as pure politics.

I get that politics is politics, and the grass always looks browner when the other party occupies the Oval Office. And there are plenty of liberals who are less outraged by this program today than they were back when George Bush and Dick Cheney were in charge of it.

But holy cow! The RNC! Officially condemning a national security program that was designedby Republicans to fight terrorism!

Benjy Sarlin, in the account Drum linked, got the politics more clear, reading this, in part, as the influence of libertarians who largely gained ascendance as part of a backlash against Bush policies or at least failures.

But the resolution also is a sign of the increasing influence of the libertarian wing of the party, especially supporters of Ron Paul and his son, Rand Paul, who have made government overreach in pursuit of terrorists a top issue. Both Orrock and fellow Nevada Committeeman James Smack, who presented the resolution on her behalf, supported the elder Paul’s presidential campaign.

But I also think there’s more to it.

There is certainly a great deal of opportunism here (note, Democrats’ utter disdain for tech companies’ concerns about the dragnet make this a monetary, as well as political opportunity for the GOP, one already bearing fruit). And while the GOP establishment is still cautiously trying to regain control over the Tea Party forces that it once encouraged, there has also been a slow change in traditional conservatives’ stance, too, which I measure through Amash-Conyers opponent Bob Goodlatte’s changing position.

Goodlatte has issued three statements in recent weeks (January 9, January 17, and January 23) calling for reform (including more civil liberties protections and attention to tech companies’ concerns) and more transparency. In the most interesting of the statements, Goodlatte suggested that if Obama wanted to keep the dragnet he’d have to explain what purpose it was really serving and then argue that that purpose

Over the course of the past several months, I have urged President Obama to bring more transparency to the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering programs in order to regain the trust of the American people. In particular, if the President believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security. The President has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness. This information is critical to informing Congress on how far to go in reforming the programs. Americans’ civil liberties are at stake in this debate. [my emphasis]

As I’ve been pointing out for some time, no dragnet defenders have yet to explain what purpose it really serves, and I’m struck that Goodlatte seems to suggest the same. Note, too, that Goodlatte was among the 6 Representatives who attended Bruce Schneier’s briefing on what NSA was really doing, along with leading GOP dragnet opponents Jim Sensenbrenner and Justin Amash and 3 Democrats.

I would suggest to Democrats who see this resolution exclusively as an overly cynical attack on Obama there may, in fact, be things that could explain why Republicans specifically or reasonable Americans more generally might have good reason to oppose the dragnet.

Now back to the resolution. As Sarlin notes, “Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions.” (I like to think that had Michigan’s retrograde Dave Agema been able to participate rather than fending off calls for his resignation, he might have spoken up for authoritarianism.)

Instead of opposition from the Republican Party then, came first this quote to Sarlin,

“I think it probably does reflect the views of many of the people who really want to turn out the vote and who are viewing the world through the prism of the next election,” Stewart Baker, a former Bush-era Homeland Security official, told msnbc in an email. “It’s a widespread view among Republicans, but I think the ones that know this institution best and for whom national security is a high priority don’t share this view.”

Then what Eli Lake reports as a letter (Lake doesn’t say to whom) from just one elected official — KS Representative and House Intelligence Committee member Mike Pompeo — and 7 Bush officials (including Baker) blasting the resolution. Part of the letter, apparently, serves to waggle National Security seniority, as Baker already had.

Their letter says: “The Republican National Committee plays a vital role in political campaigns, but it has relatively little expertise in national security.”

And part of it serves to correct a technical inaccuracy that may not be one.

In particular the letter takes issue with the resolution’s claim that the NSA’s PRISM program “monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet.”

“In fact, there is no program that monitors the searches of all Americans,” the letter says. “And what has become known as the PRISM program is not aimed at collecting the communications of Americans. It is targeted at the international communications of foreign persons located outside the United States and is precisely the type of foreign-targeted surveillance that Congress approved in 2008 and 2012 when it enacted and reauthorized amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

At issue is the language of the resolution, which starts by discussing PRISM, but then talks about what is clearly the phone (though it would encompass the Internet) dragnet, but then explicitly returns to both, by name of the authority that govern them.

WHEREAS, the secret surveillance program called PRISM targets, among other things, the surveillance of U.S. citizens on a vast scale and monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet;

WHEREAS, this dragnet program is, as far as we know, the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens, consisting of the mass acquisition of Americans’ call details encompassing all wireless and landline subscribers of the country’s three largest phone companies.

[snip]

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to enact legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make it clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity, phone records and correspondence — electronic, physical, and otherwise — of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to call for a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying and the committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform ot end unconstitutional surveillance as well as hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance; [my emphasis]

7 Bush officials and 1 HPSCI member (but not, oddly enough, the always boisterous Mike Rogers) have weighed in to say that the NSA doesn’t monitor the searches of some Americans and then trots out the tired “targeted at foreign persons” line, without addressing the question of blanket surveillance of communications more generally.

Sarlin, in his piece, similarly retreats to “targeting” claptrap, claiming only that “lawmakers have accused the agency of overreaching.”

Somehow both the Bush dead-enders and Sarlin neglect to mention backdoor searches, which allow the NSA to use metadata collected under a range of dragnets to obtain US content without even Reasonable Articulable Suspicion.

And while it’s not all that surprising that Sarlin chose not to discuss how NSA can get domestic content, as I will show in a follow-up post the collection of dead-enders (Lake fleshed out the list here) who weighed in to deny that the NSA dragnet gets US person content is particularly instructive, as I’ll show in a follow-up post.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    this is both opportunism and opportunity for the republicans this election year. i’d guess the afgordable care act won’t be very effective ammunition sgainst dems by this fall.

    but gov’t spying by americans on americans – a titanium sword.

    it is just utter folly for a dem prez to do what obama is doing on the american-government-spying-on-americans issue.

    the cutesy lawyerly lies and word-play rationalizations which the whitehouse, doj, the nsa, feinstein, and rogers have so effectively used to keep the media morons who do teevee news and political reporting off-balance will prove a wholely ineffective shield when presented as political ads.

    it is impending tragedy that democratic congressmen are so timid about this matter, so sheep-like in following an ineffective and foolish prez – a tragedy of party reputation and congressional control in the making.

    congressman goodlatte has asked the central question, the question many of us have wanted answered since this matter was first revealed:

    “…if the President believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security…”

    when, if ever, this question is answered we will find that there is no need served. we will realize that a genuine need for nsa’s obsessive data collection is the hole in the nsa donut.

    what we have had in the 7 years since 2006 is a luxiously funded, opportunistic, blunderbuss effort by experienced natsec bureaucrats to deploy every possible technique suggested by electronic engineering, computer science, systems analysis, and data storage and retrieval in order to demonsyrate proof-of-capability in stealing communications from any person or organization anywhere on our planet.

  2. thatvisionthing says:

    @orionATL: That reminds me, whatever happened to Al Franken D-MN and the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law that he chairs? I wondered about it last year, that we hadn’t heard from him on Snowden, though he had written an op-ed for HuffPo in 2012 on privacy: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/09/25/1186-into-ig-report-covering-dragnet-leahy-calls-for-another/#comment-632527

    At that time his subcommittee hadn’t even met. Checking again now I see they did meet a couple months later, November 13, 2013, regarding something called the Surveillance Transparency Act. (A decidedly user disabled PDF, try copying and pasting from it: http://www.franken.senate.gov/files/documents/130801TransparencySummary.pdf)

    Bipartisan pressure is building to institute strong and permanent transparency provisions. On July 18, a coalition of 63 companies and advocacy groups – from Google to the ACLU to Americans for Tax Reform – wrote the President and congressional leaders to demand (1) more detailed disclosures from the government, and (2) allowing companies to voluntarily disclose aggregate statistics about the information they are being compelled to produce to the government.

    The Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013 would codify these recommendations: it will improve government reporting and facilitate voluntary company disclosures. The bill would require the government to annually report on (a) the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders issued under sections 214 and 215 of the PATRIOT Act and section 702 of the FISA; (b) the general categories of information collected; (c) the number of U.S. persons whose information was collected under the categories; (d) where applicable, the number of queries run on this data, including the number of queries run based on the data of U.S. persons – and (e) the number of U.S. persons whose information was actually reviewed by federal agents. For each of those key authorities, the bill would allow companies to voluntarily disclose (a) the number of orders they received and complied with; (b) the general categories of information they produced; and (c) the number of users whose information was produced in the categories.

    I can’t find if ew covered the hearing or legislation (though Google letter covered here http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/06/11/google-begs-for-transparency/), and govtrack.us says it’s referred to committee. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s1621 (So it’s dead? I can’t even find a wikipedia mention.)

    Is there a story there? Dog bites air?

    Hearing here, but it doesn’t work with my browser apparently: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/SurveillanceT

  3. jerryy says:

    Does this mean there is a growing realization (fear) those analyses could come to light soon? We have heard a lot about how extensive the data collection and cross-referencing go, but very little has been mentioned about the end results, i.e. why they are running those queries and what is turned up.

    Once you get past the parallel construction cases for the DEA and the ahem “training” cases, there is not enough crime being committed by US residents and being solved by the feds (along with the requisite publicity of needing the capabilities to get the bad folks) to justify a Stazi type of file on every person in the US— the reports generated by running the database queries.

  4. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    If it is for industrial espionage and economic advantage, as Snowden has said repeatedly and emphatically since he started releasing the surveillance details, it cannot be explained.

    Just consider what would likely occur if O actually justified the surveillance on that economic basis.

    The latest from Snowden, and it is almost as if he is getting frustrated that it is not being discussed as it should be, he has come out for the first time ever to do a TV interview that emphatically says, “it’s economic, it’s industrial”.

    http://rt.com/news/snowden-nsa-industrial-interview-208/

    Surveillance of individuals for links to ‘terrorism’ makes perfect economic sense when one considers that activists can damage corporate profits through activism, and realizes that, for example, environmental activists are now seen as environmental terrorists.

    I was shocked when I realized that anti-war protestors are seen as a threat to national security. Peace as a threat to profit is the only explanation for such a conclusion.

    It is all for corporate economic advantage and anything that might disrupt that outcome is ‘terrorism’ and justifies surveillance.

    And that is a secret that can never be revealed.

  5. orionATL says:

    @thatvisionthing:

    i don’t know what has happened to al franken.

    it does seem to me that, shortly after being elected, al the tart-tonged comic and tough-guy wrestler,

    turned into al the pussycat.

    maybe he went off to d.c. and caught re-elecshun fever – kind of like what happened to barrack the pussycat.

  6. LeMoyne says:

    Opportunism is there for sure – politicians love to get in front of a parade. I think that public opinion is against most of the national security excesses and the R reps, especially the TPers, know it. There is some ironically twisted rock (MIC donors) and hard place (have to get votes to get elected) action here.

    Seems logical to expect fumbling in Congress with blockage in the Senate so nothing passes before the election. With more revelations and a clearer big picture still to emerge, things may shift. The surveillance grows with Moore’s Law while legislation moves at the speed of the election cycle (tho’ these days more often doesn’t even move).

    If nothing is done through Dem inaction &/or Rep intransigence, expect an absolutely freakin’ huge blizzard of commercials in October accusing Dems of being crypto-fascist thugs in Obama’s burgeoning security state to try to swing a dissatisfied electorate to Repubs who will rule as what they ran against. Paid for by nameless corporations who work to keep the NSS by railing against it. We live in bizarro world.

    From me, For EFB: Restore the Fourth!

  7. Decius says:

    Obama ran for office in part on the premise that he was going to reign in illegal spying and other totalitarian excesses of the Bush administration. Many of us who voted for him did so because it seemed the only way to contain those excesses. Four years later, the Republicans offered up Mitt Romeny, who clearly isn’t a civil libertarian and, it turns out, presided over an Olympic Games where Americans email and text message content was reportedly vacuumed up en-mass.

    Now it turns out that Obama wasn’t as much of a civil libertarian as he had claimed when we was running for office. He only reigned in some of the objectionable programs and continued to keep mass domestic spying secret from both the American people and a certain percentage of Congress.

    Subsequently, the RNC expects us to believe that they have a made a radical departure from the position they were in, oh, 15 months back when they were supporting Romney, and are now THE party for civil libertarians. They expect us to think that after having been played by Obama and the dems we’re going to believe that the very people who started this mess from the beginning are suddenly on our side and are not going to, you know, double cross us like the Dems did. And they expect us to take them seriously even though they can’t get the names of the programs they are supposedly complaining about straight in their resolution?

    You can’t be serious?

    There are a lot of voters in this country who are totally blinded by partisanship. The Republican ones were up front, waving the flag of fascism when Bush was in office and are now wining about the TSA and the NSA because a Democrat is in the whitehouse. This resolution is meant to appeal to that sort of voter – one whose perspective on totalitarianism depends on whether or not he personally identifies with the dictator. Once on power it is transparent these people’s tune will change, and most of their supporters desire that.

    Neither mainstream political party has any brand credibility for people who actually oppose mass domestic surveillance. Unfortunately, we may find that those people can be marginalized. In fact, that is also part of the purpose of shifting the civil liberties story back and forth between the parties all the time.

Comments are closed.