Washington • Sens. Mike Lee and Ron Wyden aren’t exactly political allies.
The conservative, tea party darling of Utah and the populist, liberal-leaning Oregon senator stand on opposite sides of most issues but have recently found common ground when it comes to privacy rights and concerns over government spying on Americans’ communications.
“Senator Lee and I, I think, have a fundamental view that privacy and liberty and national security — they’re not mutually exclusive,” Wyden tells The Salt Lake Tribune. “You can have both.”
Disclosures about the National Security Agency’s operations of late have helped forge new bonds on Capitol Hill, proving that while Congress is deeply divided along partisan lines, there are those issues that can bridge the gap.
Take Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The Utah conservative is among the most enthusiastic critics of the Obama administration and Democrats. But he found many partners across the aisle for legislation that would clarify how and when law enforcement agencies can use GPS devices to track potential suspects and make it a crime to use geolocation services without a warrant.
Democratic co-sponsors of the bill include Wyden — who is carrying the measure in the Senate — as well as Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenthal, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, none of whom would be described as moderate. On the right, the list includes conservative Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner and Texas Rep. Ted Poe.
‘The curve bends’ • “It’s interesting when the political spectrum has the far right meeting the far left and this is one of those interesting intersections, when the curve bends and it actually touches the other side a little bit,” Chaffetz says. “There is, I think, cohesiveness on the idea of personal privacy.”
There’s also bipartisan unity among those defending the NSA and America’s intelligence programs.
When former federal contractor Edward Snowden revealed a top-secret order from the NSA to Verizon to hand over “telephony metadata,” the top Democrat and Republican from the Senate Intelligence Committee held a joint news conference to argue for the need for such access. Former President George W. Bush said in a recent interview with CNN that Snowden had damaged the country with his leaks, a point President Barack Obama has made several times.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who served more than 20 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, longer than any other senator, also defended the NSA programs like collecting the data on Americans’ phone calls.
“I’ve known about that for a long time,” Hatch said, “and all I can say is that there is a lot of oversight and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court has done an excellent job.”
There are plenty who disagree — on the left and right.
Recently, 26 senators — including Lee and Wyden, among the mix of Republicans and Democrats — sent a letter asking Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to detail the scope, duration and effectiveness of the NSA’s phone metadata intercepts. The main thrust: the senators aren’t sure the NSA is interpreting the Patriot Act correctly.
“We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” the senators wrote in the letter.
This, along with misleading statements by Intelligence officials, have “prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly,” the bipartisan crew continued.
Polarized Congress • It’s an unusual alliance in Congress, which hasn’t been able to muster enough support to pass a farm bill or agree on budgets or, at the moment, an immigration reform package.
Aside from consensus legislation backed by almost every senator, there are just three measures Lee and Wyden have both signed onto, and all three deal with some form of privacy or national security issues.
“I’ve got a lot of Democratic allies on this and I’ve got some Republican allies as well,” Lee said about the NSA bills. “It’s good that we’ve got people on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about privacy, concerned about what can happen when government steps too far.”
Tea party groups, and those politicians they back, have argued for years against overreach by the government. And while liberals have a different take on what constitutes overreach, privacy is one of their shared concerns.
“Everybody in America and everybody in Congress wants our intelligence community to do everything that they can to foil any terrorist attack,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said recently on MSNBC. “The question is what kind of nation do we want to be as we fight terrorism. Do we feel comfortable with every single telephone call made in the United States being filed by the government?”
Chaffetz is no Sanders, but he sounds a lot like the self-described democratic socialist on this issue.
“The federal government has to have cause to look at the day-to-day activities of Americans,” the Utah Republican said in an interview. “You can’t give up every liberty in the name of security. There’s no end to that.”