Top NSA critic could lose seat

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Critics of the government’s spy agencies are worried that Colorado’s hotly contested Senate race could end the public career of one of their best allies in Congress.

Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Energy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium MORE’s (D-Colo.) possible defeat would leave a void in the Senate and on the powerful Intelligence Committee, civil liberties and anti-secrecy advocates fear.

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“I do think it would be a significant loss for the movement,” said Laura Murphy, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.

“What Udall has is the institutional memory, and the relationships in the civil liberties community, in the Democratic Party and in the tech industry so that we don’t have to start over again with someone new,” she added, while noting that her concern would be the same if Republican civil liberties advocates were also at risk of losing their seats.

Udall has long been one of the Senate’s biggest fighters against government secrecy, tough spying programs, the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and other issues important to civil libertarians.

He was the first lawmaker to call for CIA Director John Brennan to resign this summer, following his agency’s confirmation that some officials gained unauthorized access to Senate staffers’ files.

He also criticized the Senate bill to reform the National Security Agency (NSA) for not going far enough to stop “backdoor” searches of Americans, and opposed a contentious cybersecurity bill on the grounds that it would shuttle people’s personal data to the NSA.  

“Were Sen. Udall to lose, I think he would be sorely missed,” echoed Scott Roehm, a senior counsel at The Constitution Project. “He was one of the earliest voices for meaningful surveillance reform even before the Snowden leaks.”

Along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and, more recently, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Udall has been able to use his position on the Intelligence Committee to stay abreast of spying issues and speak out against them early on.

Yet the tide seems to be turning against him, just as mail-in ballots go out throughout the state.

Multiple polls conducted this month have shown Udall’s opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), with a narrow margin in the fierce Senate battle.

Last week The Denver Post — which endorsed Udall in 2008 — said the senator “is not perceived as a leader in Washington” and threw its support behind Gardner.

While the newspaper said it would “be remiss” not to credit Udall for his work against spying activities, Gardner “hasn't been oblivious to this issue, either,” noting his support of a House bill to rein in the NSA.

The race is one of the closest in the nation and could decide which party controls the Senate next year. Republicans need a total of six new seats to be in the majority.

Part of the problem for Udall is that the focus of his efforts are just not a top issue for most Americans.

Americans consistently rate economic issues as the most important problem facing the country.

In the more than 15 months since Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA, the public outrage about U.S. spying has notably dropped off. Add to that the rising fears about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which have muted some calls for surveillance reform, and Udall’s focus could be falling on deaf ears. 

In Colorado, Gardner and Udall have focused their attacks largely on women’s health and energy issues. 

On the rare instances when Gardner has been asked about Udall’s strong support for civil liberties, he has come across as supportive of the senator’s stance.

“This is not really an issue that’s in contention here in Colorado,” explained Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “It’s not an area where there’s a great deal of daylight between the candidates.”

“Part of the difficulty with an issue like privacy is that the harms can feel very intangible and they don’t necessarily have the same obvious direct effect as pocketbook issues,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program.

Udall could be trying to change that.

On Tuesday, he released a new TV ad saying he “won’t tolerate” government collection of citizens’ records.

“As Coloradans, our rights include the freedom to be left alone,” he says in the 30-second spot.

That could may be more of an effort by Udall’s campaign to strike a positive tone, however, especially because he has been repeatedly criticized for focusing solely on reproductive rights.

“Talking about something like surveillance is really a way for Udall to show another side of himself and round out the picture of the electorate has for him,” said Hanson, the political science professor.

There’s a chance the issue could also come back into the headlines in coming weeks, if the Senate Intelligence Committee releases its highly controversial report about the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding, an analysis that Udall has long pushed to be released. 

Absent much change, however, critics of the CIA, NSA and other agencies could find themselves short one ally on Capitol Hill.

“I was thinking ... whether there was anything more to the story than ‘champion of civil liberties could lose his seat and then civil liberties suffers a blow,’ ” said Goitein. “But that sort of sums it up.”