WASHINGTON – A late spring storm of Washington controversies has created a rare event in these partisan, polarized times: a shared I-told-you-so moment for the left and the right.
For anyone worried about the potential for government overreach, the past few weeks brought more cause for concern: the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny; the Justice Department subpoenaing the records of media organizations in a search-and-destroy mission against their sources of information; and the National Security Agency sweeping up phone records and secretly tapping into the Internet services that have become the nervous system of 21st-century life.
All raise questions that go beyond ideological differences over the size and cost of government that have come to define the Democratic and Republican parties.
In a different way, each of the controversies stirs misgivings — sometimes dismissed as paranoia — that the most ardent liberals and conservatives have long held about Washington’s power and reach.
That explains why the newly revealed leaker of classified information about government surveillance, 29-year-old tech specialist Edward Snowden, has been hailed as a “hero” by figures as diverse as conservative commentator Glenn Beck, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.
And the scandals — or pseudo-scandals, depending on one’s point of view — land at a time when polls show the public’s trust in the federal government is at or near all-time lows.
“All of those things fit together as almost a patchwork quilt of too much, too far and too intrusive,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. “It’s not bringing people together. It’s uniting in outrage.”
More unsettling for members of both parties is the through-the-looking glass quality of the controversies.
That is particularly true of President Barack Obama’s aggressive use of the surveillance measures that his predecessor, George W. Bush, sought in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Democrats, including then-Sen. Obama, decried these measures as an overreach.
“When you give your government power, it’s for always. It’s not just for when your team is in office,” said conservative activist Grover Norquist, who loudly criticized the domestic surveillance programs when they became public during the Bush administration. “And when you give people power, it demands to be used. . . . Obama was continuing and building on powers the Republicans demanded the government should have.”
Qualms like that have produced some unusual alliances. Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, the liberal Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, has teamed up with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a tea party champion, on a bill that would require the government to obtain a search warrant, based on probable cause, before it obtains email and other electronic communications. The current law, written in the pre-Internet era, allows email older than 180 days to be more easily accessed with a subpoena.
Although the bill was blocked last fall by Judiciary Committee Republicans, it sailed through the committee in April. On Thursday, the ardently libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, announced that he was joining as a co-sponsor.
“There is a strain in American politics that brings people like Durbin and Mike Lee and Rand Paul together, the libertarians meet the left,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the liberal Senate majority whip who has sought to restrain the government’s surveillance authority.
That was true even before the recent crop of revelations. In March, Paul created a sensation among the left and the right when he took to the Senate floor and staged a rare “talking filibuster,” orating nearly 13 hours straight to protest the Obama administration’s aggressive use of unmanned drones. He and his allies drew the scorn of many of their colleagues — Republican Sen. John McCain dismissed them as “wacko birds” — but the Internet lit up with more than 1 million tweets relating to the filibuster, 450,000 of them with the hashtag “standwithrand.”
And one of those who joined Paul in the effort was Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a liberal. “Mr. President, what it comes down to is, every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them,” Wyden said, delivering what was probably the most blistering line of the debate. It remains to be seen how much the more recent controversies will shift the overall political dynamic.
The latest to break are the revelations about the extensiveness of government surveillance. Supporters such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, say that what has been revealed was merely an extension of existing measures and that such tactics have been invaluable in keeping the country safe.
Although 9/11 took place more than a decade ago, Americans remain fearful of a sneak attack by terrorists. After the Boston Marathon bombing in April, there was a torrent of criticism questioning why the government failed to catch signals that the two brothers suspected in the attack might be planning it.
Meanwhile, Americans have grown more accustomed to surrendering slivers of their privacy. In exchange for discounts and convenience, they let Amazon know what they read, iTunes know what they listen to and Safeway know what they eat.
However, when respondents in a Time/CNN poll were given a choice two weeks after the marathon bombing, 61 percent said they were more concerned about the government enacting new anti-terrorism policies that restrict civil liberties, compared with only 31 percent who said they were more worried about the government failing to enact strong new policies to combat terrorists.
Durbin said he was surprised by the result, which he believes suggests a different public attitude than the one that prevailed after the Sept. 11 attacks. “The Time poll was done after Boston, when you would have thought that would have colored the answer, and it didn’t,” Durbin said.
When Durbin and Lee proposed an amendment last July that would have imposed more limits on warrantless surveillance of citizens, it got only three votes in the Judiciary Committee: theirs and that of Sen. Chris Coons. “It might get a different vote today,” Durbin said. “I don’t know if it would pass, but I think it would get more than three (votes).”
Norquist also argued that, taken together, the controversies may have created a new, more enduring awareness of the dangers of unbridled government. The aggrieved now include tea party activists who believe they were unfairly singled out by the IRS, liberals who expected Obama to exercise more restraint, and the news media, fearful of a chilling effect on the flow of vital information.
“It’s easier for both teams to say those are powers no one should have,” Norquist said of the recent revelations. “It gored the right. It gored the left. And it gored the judge — the press.”