Legal But Unnerving

As observed yesterday, the disclosure of the NSA’s vast data-mining operations, conducted through telecom companies and (as revealed in a second big story in the Guardian) internet providers, happened at perhaps the worst possible time for the Obama administration, and not just because of its convergence with the allegations associated with Scandalmania ’13.

Obama himself is about to go into two days of talks centered on cybersecurity with Chinese president Xi Jinping. And more generally, he’s entering a stretch of time when he needs unwavering support from the people who voted for him last year. Yet the surveillance disclosures focus on an area of deep and probably ineradicable differences of opinion between the president and his progressive activist “base.”

The political damage is somewhat self-mitigating, though. For one thing, hardly anyone at this point is alleging that the surveillance program is illegal (Its constitutionality may be another matter); it was authorized under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which was extended by Congress last year. The aggressive utilization by the Obama administration of its maximum powers under the law, continuing if not intensifying the Bush administration’s tactics, is what is really at issue. But for that very reason, Republicans who supported the exact same policies under Bush won’t have an easy time joining the left-civil-liberties community’s outrage at their continuation. These don’t, however, include Sen. Rand Paul, who can be expected to do a big speech, if not a “talking filibuster,” on all the alleged sins of the Obama administration any day now.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.