By Justin Sink - 06/06/13 09:27 PM EDT
Revelations the National Security Agency seized millions of Americans’ phone records under President Obama's watch is pitting the White House against the political left.
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• The Hill's Bob Cusack breaks down the story
Liberals have defended Obama on a series of controversies, from the Benghazi terrorist attack to Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s seeking funds from insurance companies to promote ObamaCare, arguing that Republicans are exaggerating the charges for political gain.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the program “a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy” and demanded the president publicly answer questions about how the program was being implemented.
“The administration has an obligation to give a substantive and timely response to the American people and I hope this story will force a real debate about the government’s domestic surveillance authorities,” Wyden said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, Wyden’s Democratic colleague from Oregon, blasted the program as “outrageous” and said the revelation was just part of a larger clandestine data collection effort that the White House should make public.
The fact that the political establishment is rallying around the program suggests that as a controversy, the NSA program won't have the legs of Benghazi or the IRS's targeting of conservative groups.
But unlike some of the other recent controversies, the NSA program runs the risk of pushing away some members of Obama’s political base, who have long perceived Obama as being a departure from President George W. Bush on the war on terror.
In a blistering editorial published Thursday, The New York Times said the administration had "lost all credibility," mocking reassurances from the White House as “lame” and having “never been persuasive.”
“Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it,” the newspaper wrote.
The Huffington Post's banner headline highlighted Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr.'s (R-Wis.) outrage over the NSA's actions. "Patriot Act Author: NSA Spying Excessive and Un-American,” it read above a picture of a grimacing Obama.
In the House, top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee called for hearings into the covert program.
“We believe this type of program is far too broad and is inconsistent with our nation’s founding principles,” read a joint statement signed by ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), as well as subcommittee chairmen Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
“We strongly disagree with those who would assert that because this type of program appears to be long standing and Members of Congress may have been briefed, that it is acceptable to us or the Congress,” the two said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest looked to disarm some of the criticism in a briefing with reporters aboard Air Force One, insisting that “the president welcomes a discussion of the trade-offs between security and civil liberties.”
Earnest echoed Obama’s promise during a speech last month at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where the president pledged “to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.”
But the vague promise of a “debate” is unlikely to satiate liberals who spent years accusing the Bush administration of abuses of power in waging the war on terror.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a top liberal advocacy group that often criticizes Obama, circulated a petition demanding that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees immediately investigate the program.
“The scope of the program is shocking, and the fact that the public found out of it through a Guardian [newspaper] report and it wasn't something that was known about was surprising,” said Matt Wall, a spokesman for the group.
The White House’s defense is also complicated by the president’s Senate record, in which Obama often warned about unchecked surveillance. In 2005, Obama co-sponsored legislation that would have banned the practice of mass phone record collection.
Progressives will also likely be egged on by the emerging libertarian strain of the Republican Party.
While GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) offered support for the program and Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) criticism was limited to a call for a deeper explanation, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Thursday accused both the president and fellow members of Congress of violating the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“The Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from evil, too, particularly that which always correlates with concentrated government power, and particularly executive power,” Paul said.
The liberal-libertarian coalition has proven politically potent before. In March, Paul’s 13-hour speaking filibuster challenging the administration’s drone policy earned the freshman senator bipartisan congratulations and was widely credited with inspiring Obama’s national security address last month.