Recent news about the NSA and domestic surveillance forces Pennsylvania’s members of Congress to reconsider the tradeoff between security and privacy.
The entire Congress has scrambled in recent days to learn more information about a secret NSA surveillance program. Each member has worked to determine where they stand on the issue since Edward Snowden leaked a series of top secret documents. The timing could not have been more dramatic with scandals seemingly popping up from every corner of the federal government.
Some members of Congress argue the past month’s long series of scandals have left the American people more weary of their government with a significant breach of trust. Others say the NSA leaks have been blown completely out of proportion and that any infringement of privacy is minimal compared to the vital role the surveillance plays in national security.
In addition there is controversy about whether Mr. Snowden is a hero or a traitor.
“I am in no rush to label Snowden a hero,” said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Lycoming).
“The same way we should constantly question our government, we can rightly question Snowden’s motivations in turning over classified information… I want to know why Snowden appears to have ignored proper channels and instead broke the law.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) echoed that statement.
“I have a serious reservation about someone who has a security clearance with access to classified information and turns that over to the press. This gives terrorists more information and knowledge… that should be a presumption against this guy… For me at this point, I have a lot of questions,” Toomey said.
Several other Representatives from Pa. share this sentiment including Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Montgomery).
“Edward Snowden committed actions that could potentially put millions of Americans at risk. He must be held accountable and he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Schwartz said. She is also running for Governor.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Lehigh) agreed.
“I find it incredibly hypocritical that Mr. Snowden, who professes to be concerned about protecting the private information of American citizens, would seek refuge in a protectorate controlled by China… a country with an utter disregard for the privacy rights of American citizens, let alone its own people.”
This debate is not being fought strictly on party lines. In fact, recent polling has shown a revealing but not all that surprising trend on this issue. In 2006, under the Bush administration, only 37% of Democrats viewed NSA surveillance programs as acceptable. 61% said that it is unacceptable. Republicans supported such programs 75% to 23% at the same time.
In classic D.C. fashion, a change in power has lead to a change of heart for both parties. Under the Obama administration, 64% of Democrats support NSA surveillance programs and only 52% of Republicans support it. The same poll found that 57% of Americans support the surveillance in 2013 compared to 51% in 2006.
“It’s clear that more thorough oversight of NSA’s surveillance activities is necessary to ensure our national security is protected and that the personal liberties of every American are secured,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Centre).
Just like the rest of the nation, members of Congress differ on the Patriot Act, including those from the state of Pennsylvania.
The legislation was reauthorized in 2011 with the support of all but one Pa. Republican and five Pa. Democrats: Sen. Casey and Reps. Jason Altmire, Mark Critz, Tim Holden and Schwartz.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks) was the only Pa. GOP vote against the legislation in 2011. He said the current headlines demonstrate why.
“Blanket authority granted by Section 215 of the law allows the NSA to collect personal information without a court-approved warrant. I voted against the PATRIOT Act Reauthorization repeatedly in 2005, as well as in 2011, because I was concerned about this type power being vested in the government without stringent Fourth Amendment protections,” he said.
Rep. Dent voiced strong support of the NSA surveillance program in response to a question asking if the powers afforded in Patriot Act should be scaled back.
“The programs and policies are controversial, but they have also stopped terrorist attacks and saved lives. I continue to support the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow for the coordination and sharing of intelligence between law enforcement entities and our intelligence agencies.”
Sen. Casey disagrees with Rep. Dent on aspects of the Patriot Act including Section 215 which gives the federal government broad and mostly undefined powers.
“I have some concerns about how the administration has interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which makes it easier to obtain business records deemed relevant to a national-security investigation. I look forward to hearing from the administration on this interpretation,” Casey said.
He continued, “We need to make every effort to ensure our national security and the safety of the American people…We must not sacrifice our fundamental values as we confront the threat of terrorism.”
Rep. Chaka Fatah (D-Phila) voted against the Patriot Act and still believes it is too broad.
But Schwartz backed the bill, and still does.
“This surveillance contains a system of checks and balances to prevent abuse of these powers,” she said.
Marino said presidential powers should be scaled back.
“In light of the recent IRS scandal, I share the concerns of many of my constituents who believe the current Administration is far too willing to abuse any power it is granted,” he charged. ”We need to be absolutely certain that strong checks are in place to prevent any future Administration, be it Democrat or Republican, from abusing this power and undermining our expectation of privacy, our civil liberties, and our constitutional rights.”
As the polling shows, it’s a tricky, non-partisan issue. Over the coming weeks as new details emerge, look for members to refine their messaging and reevaluate past positions.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Luzerne) summed up the dilemma.
“The key is in striking a balance between liberty and the central responsibility of government, which is to protect the citizenry. It is a line we have been attempting to walk since September 11, 2001.”
Keegan Gibson contributed to this report.