John Conyers

Close NSA vote shows increasing tension between privacy and security

July 25, 2013: 4:02 PM ET

The coalition between civil libertarians on the left and right appears to be stronger than many had thought. But it appears to be an alliance of convenience.

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FORTUNE -- The close, bipartisan vote on Wednesday on a House bill to restrict the National Security Agency's program phone surveillance program revealed a radical evolution -- or devolution, depending on how you look at -- in how we approach the always-difficult tension between privacy and security. It also revealed the further evolution -- or devolution, depending on how you look at it -- of the coalition between libertarians and liberals when it comes to issues of privacy and freedom in communications.

The vote, though it went their way, put establishment Democrats as well as the Republican leadership and many neoconservatives on the defensive. Those who oppose programs like the ones exposed by Edward Snowden's leaks seem to have a bit of momentum in the national debate. Just a few years ago, in the period just after 9/11, such momentum would have been impossible.

The bill was written by Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican from Michigan, and John Conyers, a Democrat from the same state. Its failure came as a relief to the Obama administration, which revealed how nervous it was about the vote when it issued a statement by press secretary Jay Carney Wednesday morning warning that the bill would "hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community's counterterrorism tools." (The uppercase I and C there are both unnecessary and slightly disturbing.)

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"This blunt approach," Carney said, "is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process." The irony of this statement was not missed by opponents of the NSA's spying programs. The surveillance was certainly not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process, but was hatched and kept in secret and revealed by a guy who is now hiding in Russia. Carney also reiterated President Obama's statement right after the leaks were made public that the administration "welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens." Of course, this welcoming of debate occurred only after the programs were exposed. Before that, no debate was possible, which was just how Obama wanted it.

Such doublespeak is usually employed only when the people employing it feel under threat, and the Obama administration clearly does. House Democrats voted 111-83 in favor of the bill, which failed by only 12 votes -- 217-205. The Republican tally was fairly close, too, with 94 voting for the bill and 134 voting against. All of those voting in favor on both sides of the aisle were acting as renegades: The leadership of both parties, as well as the administration, strongly opposed the bill. The oddness of the coalitions on both sides is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Michele Bachmann is on the same side of the question as Obama.

The electorate is similarly moving toward favoring privacy over security in a way that would have been unthinkable in the years just after 9/11. The results of a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week show that the percentage of Americans who think privacy is more important than investigating terrorist threats is more than double what it was a decade ago. They're still in the minority -- four in 10 -- but the trend is clear, especially when you consider that much of the change has occurred just in the past three years. Many respondents said they favored privacy over security because they don't believe the NSA's phone program is effective. If they did, they might be more willing to give up some privacy in return for more security.

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That shows that the NSA program's supporters, especially the administration, haven't done a very good job of selling it. It also shows that opponents of government surveillance of Americans, such as privacy groups and vociferous activists on social media, are getting traction. They have done that in large part by appealing to both liberals and libertarians, an effort personified by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the Snowden story. Wednesday's close vote, he tweeted, was the result of an "amazing coalition of left-wing and right-wing civil libertarians."

That coalition is mighty when it comes to privacy and online freedoms. Many of the same people who oppose the NSA program also were instrumental in 2011 and 2012 in defeating SOPA and PIPA, the bills aimed at curbing online piracy that opponents said were way too intrusive. But the alliance is one of convenience and is limited to such issues. A commenter under Greenwald's article about the Amash-Conyers bill said the debate "showed the start of a four party system, libertarian Republicans and civil liberties Democrats joining together to oppose the authoritarian leadership of both parties."

On issues like this, yes. But ask libertarian Republicans and civil-liberties Democrats what they think about climate change, Obamacare, or any number of other issues, and you'll get very different answers. So different that the formation of a lasting, wide-ranging coalition to take on the establishments of both parties seems unlikely at best. Libertarians dislike government in general. Liberals don't.

Meanwhile, the alliance is vulnerable even on this particular issue. All it would take to defeat it and get people to start favoring security over privacy again would be another major terror attack.

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