Where’s the Body?

June 13th, 2013



What’s missing is a victim.

That’s why all the scandals roiling Washington are not having much impact on public opinion. No one seems to have been damaged by the revelations. If the government is abusing its power with these vast surveillance programs, we need to see an abuse—an American who was harassed or persecuted or whose rights were violated.

Otherwise, the scandals are all about theoretical issues and potential abuses of power.  Those are serious concerns for civil libertarians on the left like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and for libertarians on the right like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), both of whom are taking the federal government to court.

To get traction with the public, however, we need a face. We need the story of Suzy Creamcheese of South Succotash, New York, who once said in a telephone conversation with a friend that she is so angry with her brother-in-law, she could just kill him. And lo and behold, the feds come after her for making a dangerous threat. Then we’d see a wave of public outrage. It was a private conversation! What right did the feds have to listen in on Suzy without a court order authorizing a wiretap?

The closest we have to a victim is Fox News reporter James Rosen, who may be charged as a co-conspirator in a leak investigation. His reporting may have revealed classified information about a CIA source in North Korea. If Rosen is, indeed, charged, the press will rush to his defense.  But it’s unlikely that many ordinary Americans will be outraged.

Potential abuse does bother a lot of people. In the CBS News poll just released, nearly 60% of Americans say they are at least somewhat concerned about their loss of privacy.  But most understand the reason for it. 53% say the government’s collection of telephone records is “a necessary tool” to help find terrorists.

The word “terrorism” is the key. Americans are willing to accept some loss of privacy if it will help keep them safe, just as they do with TSA screenings at airports. “You can’t have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” President Obama said last week.

In the CBS poll, the public disapproves of federal agencies collecting the telephone records of “ordinary Americans,” 58% to 38%. But the public approves of federal agencies collecting phone records of Americans “suspected of terrorist activity,” 75% to 25%. Meanwhile, the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have tried to reassure Americans that the surveillance program is paying off. House chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said, “Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that.”

Senate chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) argues that the surveillance is legal and carried out with proper safeguards.  “We want to protect people’s private rights, and that’s why this is carefully done,” Feinstein said.  “That’s why it’s a federal court of eleven judges who sit 24/7 who review these requests and then either approve them or deny them.”

As long as federal surveillance can be justified as protecting people from terrorism, Americans are willing to accept it…especially if the stories are about potential rather than actual violations of people’s rights. The terrorism argument also explains why one scandal matters more than the others.

All but one of the scandals have to do with terrorism. The collection of telephone records and the monitoring of Internet contacts with foreigners are aimed at gathering intelligence about possible terrorist activities. The deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi was perpetrated by terrorists. The seizure of reporters’ telephone records at the Associated Press was aimed at investigating a possible national security leak.

The scandal that has nothing to do with terrorism is the one involving the Internal Revenue Service. That sounds like a politically motivated action to harass the President’s enemies. And that is the scandal the public takes most seriously. In the late May Quinnipiac poll, 31% of Americans called the situation with the Associated Press a scandal and 39% called the Benghazi situation a scandal.  But a majority (53%) said the IRS controversy was a scandal.  (News of the NSA surveillance activities had not yet broken).

Which controversy did people believe was most important to the nation? 44% said the IRS.  Only 24% said Benghazi and 15% said the AP.  The IRS scandal is the one that’s most dangerous for the Obama Administration. It’s the only scandal that has produced victims—conservative political groups that claim to have been harassed by the IRS. So far, however, no one has come up with evidence that the order to go after them came from the White House.

Without actual victims, opinions about the surveillance stories are being shaped by partisanship. Republicans are more outraged than Democrats. Even about surveillance under the Patriot Act. And the possible violation of press freedom. Republicans have never been overly solicitous of press freedom or of civil liberties. What gets Republicans going is the fact that these actions were carried out by a hated Democratic Administration.

As for the justification for having the government collect such massive amounts of information, the best argument was offered by Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. As Bash put it on MSNBC, “If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack.”

This piece was originally published in HuffingtonPost.