Another day, another round of revelations about government snooping. And the upshot will likely be a decline in public trust that Washington is willing or able to do the right thing in the future.
Today's most important disclosure comes in The Washington Post, which reports that the National Security Agency and the FBI "are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets."
The companies include AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and YouTube. The goal, government officials say, is to keep Americans safe by tracking down terrorists. But spokesmen for several of these companies say they don't know of such a sweeping program.
Yet the fallout from the snooping and the sheer extent of the reported surveillance is likely to increase the public's belief that something is very wrong in Washington. Before the current revelations became public, only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the federal government, down from 33 percent a year earlier, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
This seems likely to get worse, and it could put a serious crimp in President Obama's agenda, which is based on a strong role for the federal government.
At a Democratic fundraiser in Portola Valley, Calif., Thursday night, Obama said government should have a vital role in many areas of national life. "It's an argument that government has a critical role to play in funding science and research, in creating the infrastructure, not only the old infrastructure of roads and bridges and ports, but a new infrastructure of smart grids and broadband," Obama said.
"Government has a role in educating our kids, to make sure that they've got the skills they need to compete. Government has a role in creating a regulatory structure that ensures that we're encouraging the development of clean energy, and that we're protecting intellectual property."
But after the current revelations, tea party and other conservative activists, along with libertarians, will likely be more motivated to turn out in the 2014 elections in order to register their disapproval for what they consider Big Brother-style government and Washington running amok. Civil libertarians such as the ACLU will be animated on the left.
One of the most vocal critics has been Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican with a libertarian streak. "I'm appalled," Paul told Yahoo News. He said he wants the government to "go after terrorists" and other criminals, but he says the NSC and other surveillance programs go too far, affect millions of law-abiding citizens, violate the Bill of Rights, and amount to "a great invasion of our privacy."
Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who has been active on national security issues for many years, said the secret collection of communication records from millions of citizens is "excessive and un-American," and was "never the intent" of the law.
Other congressional critics of the snooping include Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, both Democrats.
Some legislators, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defend the government actions. Graham says he doesn't mind the government getting access to his phone and email records as long as it's being done to track down terrorists.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the NSA effort has helped to stop at least one terrorist attack in the United States over the past few years, but he did not elaborate.
The latest disclosure comes after a string of embarrassments for government agencies in recent weeks. The Internal Revenue Service is under congressional investigation for targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and for wasting millions of taxpayer dollars by staging an expensive conference for staff members.
The Justice Department is in hot water for seizing phone records from the Associated Press in a probe of national-security leaks, and for monitoring the communications of Fox News reporter James Rosen in a separate probe of leaks. The government is also being scrutinized for collecting phone records from Verizon customers.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.