President Barack Obama turned serious in an interview with late-night television host Jay Leno three weeks ago and sought to reassure the nation about top-secret U.S. electronic surveillance programs.
“There is no spying on Americans,” Obama insisted to Leno. “We don’t have a domestic spying program.”
A classified court opinion released Aug. 21 showed that the National Security Agency intercepted as many as 56,000 e-mails a year of Americans who weren’t suspected of having ties to terrorism -- another in a steady drip of revelations testing Obama’s credibility on surveillance issues among voters.
This week’s news also emboldened members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to intensify their calls for greater NSA oversight, not just of the telephone-records collection program revealed earlier but of the e-mail gathering as well.
“Most people are concerned that NSA is willy-nilly getting content or doing searches,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Nation” on Aug. 18. “Obviously, we need more oversight.”
Obama’s standing took a hit after the government confirmed June 6 that the NSA was secretly collecting telephone records and Internet communications, with the biggest dips in his poll numbers coming among younger voters who polls showed strongly backed him in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
The portion of Americans who said Obama is “honest and trustworthy” in a June 11-13 CNN/ORC International poll fell nine percentage points from a month earlier, to 49 percent. Among Americans under 35, the portion declined 18 percentage points in a month, also to 49 percent. The poll hasn’t asked the question since.
The New York Times editorial page, which often backs the Obama administration, said in an editorial published June 6 after the surveillance program was exposed that the president “has now lost all credibility on this issue.”
Joe Trippi, a Democratic media consultant who worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign, said the issue isn’t likely to translate into a decline in support among the young for the main tenets of Obama’s second-term agenda.
“They may be disappointed with the president,” Trippi said. “Disappointment doesn’t mean that they’re not going to support him on immigration, the budget, fiscal cliff, any number of things.”
Fresh revelations about NSA surveillance nonetheless are opening schisms in both the Democratic and Republican parties over civil liberties that are likely to widen in 2016 presidential primaries, Trippi said.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, both potential Republican presidential candidates, already have sparred publicly over the issue.
“If somebody’s looking at how this will really impact politically, I think it’s in 2016 and probably in both parties,” Trippi said.
The NSA surveillance programs were exposed more than two months ago by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents to the Washington Post and U.K.-based Guardian newspapers. U.S. authorities have filed espionage and theft charges against Snowden, who’s now in Russia under temporary asylum.
In response to the disclosures, the Obama administration has been declassifying and releasing court orders, policy papers and descriptions of surveillance efforts to quell momentum in Congress to restrict funding for or use of the programs.
The moves are coming as lawmakers expand their review of the NSA’s activities to include whether the agency is improperly scooping up e-mails and other electronic communications. A 2008 law requires the NSA to obtain a warrant to collect communications of Americans.
The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees, as well as the House Judiciary Committee, plan to hold hearings when Congress returns from a recess next month on legislative changes to the NSA’s Internet monitoring program.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote Obama on Aug. 21 requesting a briefing for all senators by NSA Director Keith Alexander by Sept. 13.
“Given the scope and scale of the disclosures to date and the significant likelihood of more to come, it is now all the more important that the administration come to Congress and provide a full accounting of the totality of these efforts,” Corker said.
Although the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees NSA spying required more privacy safeguards to be built into the program, the agency continues to collect “wholly domestic American communications each year,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement.
“This poses a significant concern for Americans’ civil liberties because the law itself is so broad that this collection can extend far beyond anyone even remotely connected to terrorism and into legitimate communications with foreigners,” said Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has been at the forefront of demanding more transparency from the Obama administration.
The Senate Intelligence Committee will consider changes related to NSA authority to monitor Internet communications and collect telephone records of Americans, said a committee aide who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record and asked not to be identified.
Changes could include requiring the NSA and FISA court to publicly disclose more about the spy programs, altering the composition of the court to give it more ideological diversity, and requiring it to hear from a privacy advocate when making decisions, the aide said in a phone interview.
The NSA had previously informed Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, about the violations described in the declassified legal opinions, the aide said.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House rejected by seven votes a measure by Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan that would have denied the NSA funding to collect telephone records on millions of Americans.
“We’re very confident that this fall the House Judiciary committee will move legislation to rein in NSA surveillance of telephone records,” Will Adams, spokesman for Amash, said in a phone interview.
Lawmakers are seeking more information about the NSA’s surveillance of Internet communications, which U.S. intelligence officials say has contributed to stopping terrorist attacks, Adams said.
“The first move by Congress on the surveillance of Internet communications will likely be to demand that NSA come clean on what’s it’s doing,” Adams said. “Once we have more information we can intelligently write bills that will address that issue.”
The House Intelligence Committee is working on “proposals to improve transparency and strengthen privacy protections to further build the confidence of the American public in our nation’s counterterrorism programs,” spokeswoman Susan Phalen said in a statement.
The panel’s Republican chairman, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, was “fully aware that there had been a few isolated instances where the NSA had, through technical errors, erroneously collected e-mails of Americans,” Phalen said.
Rogers had said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” television program on July 28 that there were “zero privacy violations” in the agency’s collection of phone records. Phalen said Aug. 16 in a statement that Rogers was “referring to willful and intentional violations of law” and “the disclosed documents demonstrate that there were no intentional and willful violations.”