NSA Surveillance Divides the Republican Party

The RNC has declared domestic spying illegal. A faction led by George W. Bush-era bureaucrats is pushing back. 
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A Republican Party resolution that renounces NSA spying is an extraordinary document. For over a decade, the GOP dismissed civil-libertarian complaints about the War on Terror. The RNC stood behind Team Bush through the war crime of torture and a secret, illegal program of warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens. Circa 2009, the Tea Party began vying for control of the Republican Party. But even then, mass surveillance on innocents wasn't among its complaints.

President Obama's first term would play out with the GOP opposing him on virtually every issue except his embrace of his predecessor's War on Terror approach. 

But Obama's second term has been different.
 
Rand Paul's filibuster against lethal drone strikes drew support from Senate colleagues Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee. Representative Justin Amash has distinguished himself as a leading civil libertarian in the House. And is if to signify that the GOP establishment is changing along with its elected officials, the RNC voted in a winter meeting to literally renounce NSA domestic surveillance. "It was passed by a voice vote as part of a package of RNC proposals," Benjy Sarlin reports. "Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions." That's incredible, because it's almost impossible to exaggerate how unequivocally the resolution condemns the NSA. 
  • It declares NSA activities "the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens."
  • It declares NSA spying unconstitutional, insisting that it violates both the First and Fourth Amendments.
  • It characterizes NSA surveillance as "an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society."
  • It calls on GOP legislators to pass sweeping reforms.
  • It endorses "a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs."
  • In encourages GOP legislators to create a special committee to investigate the NSA.
  • It urges that Congress "hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance."

Perhaps that last line about holding those responsible accountable helps to explain the quick response from seven former Bush Administration officials, who joined a sitting GOP congressman in a letter to the RNC, obtained by Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. "As Republicans who are familiar with the threat that terrorism still poses to this country, we are compelled to dissent from the ill-considered resolution adopted by the Republican National Committee on January 24 by voice vote," the letter states. "The Republican National Committee plays a vital role in political campaigns, but it has relatively little expertise in national security."

Of course, one needn't be a national-security expert to appreciate the moral, constitutional, and human-rights implications of mass surveillance on hundreds of millions. That's a fundamental point that national-security-state insiders still don't seem to grasp: Their expertise is real, but on a host of issues it is beside the point. The RNC is composed of political experts, so I expect that when Representative Peter King complains that "it’s basically repudiating the policies of the Republican Party over the last 12 years," committee members are well aware of that fact.

Another critique of the RNC's actions come from Commentary, a magazine associated with the hawkish faction that is losing power in the GOP. Max Boot writes:

Republicans have already done a good job over the past decade in squandering their traditional advantage in the national-security arena–for example by supporting sequestration, which could have a devastating impact on our military readiness and by not supporting strong action to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Now a certain segment of the GOP appears determined to get to the left of President Obama in the war on terrorism. Earlier I called this the Rand Paul wing of the GOP; it might just as well be called the Maxine Waters wing. When Republicans see eye-to-eye with the most extreme doves in the Democratic Party, it’s time for a gut check.

Isn't that funny?

One of neoconservatism's most reflexive hawks finally notices that the GOP squandered its traditional advantage on national security over the last decade, and he attributes it to ... sequestration and excessive dovishness on Syria! Yes, Max, perhaps it was just a coincidence that the loss of faith coincided with that war of choice you championed, the one that killed 2,000 more Americans than 9/11.

The DNC is surely going to be asked about this resolution if they haven't been already.

I wonder what they'll say.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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