Liberals, Obama at Odds Over NSA Programs

Libertarians and liberals on the same side when it comes to privacy issues.

(Evan Vucci/AP)

Attorney Larry Klayman hopes to turn up the legal heat on President Barack Obama over his administration's secret domestic surveillance programs.

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Nothing scrambles Beltway politics faster than government spying.

After the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency had been gobbling up millions of Verizon customers' phone records, the left-leaning Huffington Post, linked to a punchy splash page featuring "George W. Obama," – a composite photo of President Barack Obama and George W. Bush – invoking a time when many on the left were critical of the Bush Administration's national security practices.

Hours later, when news broke that Obama had signed off on a program that allowed the FBI and NSA to review emails, videos and social networks of foreign users, the conservative Drudge Report posted a link to the story under the headline "The Internet From Hell."

While conservatives have been quick to criticize their political opposition, the recent scandal puts liberals on Capitol Hill, some in the media, and even liberal advocates in an conflicted position.

During the Bush administration, many key Democrats were critical of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, but are now having a hard time criticizing a president in their own party who's seemingly doing the same thing.

[READ: Phone Spying Program Has Hubs Across U.S., Has Gone on for Years]

"The political left has obviously been extremely disappointed by the president," says Wells Bennett, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution. "His allies are saying 'we thought you weren't going to do this kind of stuff.'"

One of the most surprising critics is Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a close friend and political confidant to the president.

"Today's revelation is disturbing, but it should not be surprising," Durbin said in a statement. "I have tried to reform this provision of the Patriot Act for years."

Friday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a left-leaning advocacy group, announced a series of internet ads they would run across the country targeting Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – a fierce defender of the Obama administration's counter-terror tactics – and against Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who told reporters Thursday he was "glad" NSA was keeping tabs on phone records.


"In 36 hours, nearly 20,000 people have signed the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's petition calling on both houses of Congress to hold investigations and reveal their findings to the public," committee spokesman Matt Wall said.

The New York Times also ran a scathing editorial against President Obama Thursday night that accused his administration of losing "all credibility" on the issue of national security.

But while some liberals have come out against Obama, they're finding allies in the libertarian wing of the GOP.

Infringing on civil liberties brings together a coalition of odd bedfellows. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, all expressed their deep concerns over whether the federal government had extended its "Big Brother" programs too much.

"No one in America should be above the law, including the president," Paul wrote in an op-ed in Friday's Guardian.

[ALSO: Is Congress Responsible for NSA Phone Data Mining?]

The coalition of senators who came out with public statements in opposition to the president's programs this week were the same ones who back in December when Congress was hurrying to pass the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act – a bill that gives the administration broad discretion to collect private data – were fighting to narrow its reach.

"These are the handful of members of Congress who tried very hard and did ... as many of the things that were in their power to fight back against the uses of FISA," says Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "We owe them a debt of gratitude, but Congress is a body that operates by majority votes."

But while public outrage on both the left and the right is mounting, Goitein says she's unsure if it will be enough to foster any serious political action.