Imagine this: Some of the most prominent conservative and liberal members of the Senate getting together to advance a bill challenging establishment positions on privacy.
It sounds unthinkable, especially in today’s age of partisanship. But it is exactly what happened on Tuesday, when a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a bill that would unseal certain opinions handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The bill follows new revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which have been exposed in a series of leaks by 29-year-old former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The ensuing debate has divided political partisans into schisms unlike any other debate in recent memory. It has led conservatives and liberals to team up on different sides of the coin.
That led six of the Senate’s most liberal members — Democratic Sens. Pat Leahy (Vt.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Al Franken (Mont.), Jon Tester (Mont.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) — to team up with Republican Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Mike Lee (Utah), a Tea Party favourite.
The bill “will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public,” Lee said in a statement. “Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government.”
Lee is not surprised at how the issue has produced some bipartisan agreement, said his press secretary, Emily Bennion.
“It shouldn’t be partisan. Government abusing its power affects us all,” she told Business Insider.
The debate has focused on the balance between privacy and intelligence gathering in an attempt to thwart terror plots.
On the side of strict protection of privacy are people like Sens. Lee and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), along with those Democratic senators. They are joined by conservative media titans Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and liberal figures like filmmaker Michael Moore and Glenn Greenwald, who has broken many of the stories relating to the leaks.
In the other corner defending surveillance practices is President Barack Obama, who has shifted his stance as president. He has been joined by House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Also in this camp are influential media voices like the left-leaning Time magazine’s Joe Klein and The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin, as well as conservative media figures like Charles Krauthammer.
“Frankly, I was initially stunned that so many conservatives dismissed this so cavalierly,” said Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist for The Daily Caller, in an email. “Likewise, I’m shocked to have found common cause with some liberals who care deeply about preserving the Constitution (who knew?). This issue makes for strange bedfellows, to be sure.”
The depth of the unusual divide on the issue has been illuminated most clearly with Greenwald, who was a constant critic of President George W. Bush’s policies on surveillance. This time, liberal critics have heaped more scrutiny on him.
MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell challenged Greenwald on Monday night. Before that, “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski and Greenwald got into a testy exchange over the legality of the Obama administration’s actions. At one point, Greenwald accused her of reading “White House talking points.”
“Not much surprises me these days, but this has,” Lewis said. “It clearly transcends the normal partisan — and even ideological — divides.”
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