Verizon phone-snooping flap: why Obama won't be harmed

News that Verizon has been forced to turn over millions of phone records to the US government feeds the narrative of Big Brother-ism in Washington. But concerns over national security are likely to mitigate political fallout. 

John Minchillo/AP
Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in New York. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, defended the government's need to collect telephone records of American citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order.

At first blush, the news report about the US government tracking data from Verizon about millions of phone calls, in the name of protecting national security, looks to be potentially explosive and politically damaging.

After all, it fits the narrative of Big Government run amok, fueled lately by revelations that the Justice Department has been accessing reporters’ phone records and the Internal Revenue Service has been subjecting tea party groups to extra scrutiny.

But since Wednesday night, when the British newspaper The Guardian posted the story, the flood of reactions from political players demonstrates both bipartisan support for and bipartisan opposition to the classified program. Instead, the split in opinion is centered more on where to draw the line between defending national security and protecting civil liberties.

Even though plenty of liberals are unhappy with the Obama administration over this and other actions taken in the name of national security (see drone strikes abroad), they are hardly ready to abandon him. And across the political landscape, the continuing threat of terrorism is likely to mitigate any damage to the president’s job approval. 

On Thursday, a key Republican came to the government’s defense over the “phone snooping” story. Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters that the National Security Agency (NSA) program was instrumental recently in preventing a “significant” terrorism attack.

“Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States,” Congressman Rogers said. “We know that. It’s important. It fills in a little seam that we have.”

The White House has also been defending the program, calling it a “critical tool.”

“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States,” a senior administration official said in a statement Thursday morning.

Still, speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon on Air Force One, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that privacy tradeoffs come into play when national security is at stake. And he said President Obama “welcomes” discussion of that balance.

The Guardian on Wednesday published an article revealing a government program requiring Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the United States and between the US and abroad. Accompanying the article was a top secret court order laying out the requirement. Verizon must provide “metadata” – such as phone numbers involved and duration of calls – but not the content of calls.

The order, granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as a FISA court, was granted on April 25 and ends on July 19. Since the Guardian story broke, members of congressional intelligence committees have made clear that such an order has been in place for years, and that other phone companies face the same requirement. The program is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the broad antiterrorism legislation that was signed into law right after 9/11.

Still, plenty of political figures and groups from across the political spectrum – from former Vice President Al Gore to tea party groups -- have expressed outrage over the program.

"In the digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" the Democratic ex-vice president tweeted late Wednesday.

From the other end of the political spectrum, Mitt Kibbe, president of the tea party group Freedomworks, channeled populist outrage in his reaction.  

“We are witnessing the arrogance of the political elite,” Mr. Kibbe said in a statement. “The government feels it is entitled to know the minutiae of the lives of private citizens regardless of whether they are suspected or charged with a crime.”

How or whether this latest revelation will affect Mr. Obama’s public support opinion is an open question. If nothing else, it has once again knocked the president off-message, on a day when he is in North Carolina talking education.  

After the recent stories about the Justice Department and the IRS, Obama’s job approval rating has drifted downward, though it is not clear those two stories are the cause. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday showed that 55 percent of Americans believe the IRS’s targeting actions raise doubts about the Obama administration’s honesty and integrity. But only 33 percent said Obama was “totally” or “mainly” responsible.

One thing is clear after the publication of the Guardian story: The Obama administration now has another leak of classified information to investigate. And the author of that story, Glenn Greenwald, should not be surprised to find his own phone records now subject to review by the Justice Department.  

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