Dems reject Bush comparisons

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday said there is no comparison between the domestic spying operations under President Obama and former President George W. Bush. 

Obama’s program is legal, Hoyer said, whereas Bush’s broke the law. 

“The difference between this program and the Bush program [is that] the Bush program was not sanctioned by law; this is pursuant to law,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. “I think that’s a very important distinction that some people don’t draw but they ought to draw.”

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Hoyer is the only Democratic leader to draw such a stark contrast so far, but others are likely to follow as the party defends the policies of its president even as it appeases liberal lawmakers who see Obama’s actions as eroding civil liberties.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to get intense questions later this week when she meets reporters for the first time since revelations of the PRISM program, in which the National Security Agency compiled raw data from international users accessing American Internet services. 

Discussing a separate program that data mined U.S. telephone records, Pelosi last week avoided any stark comparisons to the Bush-era programs and focused on national security leaks. 

“The fact that it is in the paper is ... disconcerting to me,” she said on Thursday. 

Pelosi has also called for strengthening a long-dormant government panel designed to check the NSA’s surveillance activities, saying that effort would thread the needle between fighting terrorism and protecting individual rights.

“What I’m calling for now is the full empowerment of the Privacy and Civil Liberties [Oversight] Board, because while the law is what it is, we want the interpretation of it to be in favor, of course, of liberty,” Pelosi said Monday following a gender equality event in San Diego.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, highlighted the sensitive nature of the Democrats’ position, saying he has grave concerns about abuse under the domestic spying programs — but only as it pertains to future administrations.

“At some point you may have someone in the White House or someone in government who doesn’t take their role of authority with as much deliberation [as the Obama administration],” Becerra told MassLive.com on Friday. “That’s when you get these sweeps that are unjustified.”

Not all Democrats are spouting that company line. 

Several liberal Democrats in the Senate offered legislation on Tuesday that would seek to pressure courts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make more of their orders public. 

House liberals are devising a separate proposal that would scale back executive surveillance powers.

And Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a frequent presence on cable news programs, has criticized Obama’s operation.

“I looked at the president’s presentation in defending this. But I think we have gone too far,” he said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “I mean, if this becomes the normal now, what’s going to be the normal tomorrow?”

Congressional leaders aren’t ready to push for any legislative changes, however, arguing that it’s too early to say whether Congress should look at tweaking the nation’s surveillance laws.

“It is a worthy question to pursue,” Hoyer said. “I want to have a much fuller understanding [of the programs]. ... We have a responsibility to look at that.”

The White House itself has highlighted key differences between the Bush-era programs and the programs now in the news. 

Under the Bush administration, the NSA came under fire after it was revealed that the agency was tapping domestic phone calls without a court order. By contrast, the Obama administration received the authority to conduct its surveillance from the FISA court, according to reports. 

In another distinction, the NSA under Bush was said to monitor the content of the communications it was intercepting — a level of detail the Obama administration has reportedly not sought in its blanket sweeps. 

A series of polls conducted by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center suggests that voters’ preference for security versus privacy hinges significantly on which party controls the White House. 

When asked in 2006 about Bush’s secret surveillance program, for instance, only 37 percent of polled Democrats said they approved — a figure that jumped to 64 percent this week in relation to Obama’s spying programs.

Republicans demonstrated a similar shift, the polls found, with 75 percent approving of Bush’s surveillance but only 52 percent saying Obama’s programs are acceptable.