WASHINGTON — Edward Snowden has done what President Obama and and John Boehner couldn’t: get Washington singing the same tune. For once, leaders of the Democratic and Republican Party agree — that the young former CIA staffer revealed nothing of note, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The open question: who wrote the lyrics?
Obama’s allies and members of Congress say the White House isn’t issuing orders, but the remarkable unanimity has given a rare foothold to the Administration at a difficult time.
On Thursday, Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered only slight variations on the same theme. Snowden’s acts are criminal, they said, and what he exposed is simply not that big a deal. There are differences between how this is communicated — Boehner flat-out called Snowden “a traitor” while Pelosi simply said “he should beprosecuted” — but the main themes are certainly similar.
“They are making their case, but no one has called me and said ‘Jeez, you know you are wrong about this,’” said one Congressional dissenter, Rep. John Larson. The Connecticut Democrat voted for the Patriot Act the first time, but has since been a critic of the law and has voted against its reauthorization. Larson said the White House is defending itself to TV cameras rather than in behind the scenes conversations.
Obama and the White House haven’t said much about the NSA programs since the president’s statement on them last Friday, before Snowden’s name was revealed.
“He’s made his case publicly but there should always be a dynamic tension between the executive and legislative branches,” Larson said. “That’s why we call it a democracy.”
Even as they set about mounting a defense of the White House, leaders in Congress say they’re doing it all on their own. In fact, no matter what side of the debate they’re on, Washington leaders insist they’re not hearing much more about the NSA scandal from the White House than the public is.
While it’s rare that a scandal of this nature wouldn’t be managed, there indeed may be a lack of coordination due to the nature of the NSA story. While Obama may be in charge of the spying, Republicans and Democrats have signed off on it for years. And that means everyone owns its security successes — and the scandal surrounding the government’s decision to monitor the activity of its citizens.
Just two weeks since a series of stories revealed a pair of domestic spying programs, the debate has shifted quickly from the spying itself and onto Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor and source of the information.
After Snowden revealed himself in an online interview from Hong Kong, he’s found himself with few friends in the capital, with just about everyone condemning him and calling for his prosecution. Attacking Snowden has become the centerpiece of a narrative about the NSA story that’s starting to become universal among the more establishment types in Washington, signalling a tough road ahead for those who hoped to see real change to national security strategy emerge from Snowden’s leaks.
That puts the public discussion on decidedly friendly footing not only for the White House but for Congress as well, since it shifts the narrative away from a debate over what level of government surveillance is acceptable and onto the mechanics of the leaks. Even when they are talking about the programs, lawmakers of both parties are demonstrating a remarkable ability to march in lockstep — especially for a group of people who often have difficulty agreeing on what day of the week it is.
Pelosi is also picking up on White House defense of the programs, echoing Obama’s promise that the blanket surveillance under Obama is significantly different than the surveillance under George W. Bush. At her Thursday presser, she said she’s drafting a slide presentation to explain the distinction between Bush and Obama’s NSA to skittish members of her caucus.
“I’m going to have for members … a side by side of what the actions were under President Bush, what they had proposed in their protect America act —which was not acceptable to us— and what we passed in the FISA act of 2008 and all of the protections that were abided by in going to a FISA court that were insisted upon by the Democrats in that legislation,” Pelosi said. “There are many protections for the American people, including strengthening a civil liberties board. I think this is really important because we have to have the balance between liberty and security.”
At a press conference after the “traitor” remarks, Boehner dinged the White House for what he said was weak defense of the NSA programs exposed by Snowden. But he also picked up the White House’s central defense of the programs, namely that Congress owns them as much as the White House does, and that there’s been bipartisan support for them all along.
“For those of us who have been briefed on these programs, we’re aware how much safety they’ve brought us. And we’re also aware of many examples where they’ve helped us eliminate terrorist threats,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are distributing talking points that bear a striking resemblance to the White House’s initial defense of the programs.
And on Capitol Hill, members and staff told BuzzFeed that the NSA line isn’t coming from the White House. Pelosi’s slide deck is her own, and did not come at the direction of the White House, aides said. Other Democrats say they haven’t heard much directly from the White House behind the scenes about the NSA.
And Democratic leadership is not stressing any deep division within their caucus. A steady number of progressive members, who have long opposed any government program that could lead to wholesale spying are angered by the revelations, but members are not getting any messaging notes from the White House.
National security think tanks around the city allied with Democrats say they haven’t heard much from the White House about the surveillance programs either. The White House regularly communicates with these groups about its policy goals and intentions, but when it comes to the NSA programs so far they say they’re not hearing much from the the White House.
The same goes for the Democrats who fill the cable TV broadcast day. The White House and other groups usually brief TV commentators on its positions, giving them ammo to use on air. One prominent surrogate told BuzzFeed the administration has sent plenty of talking points about immigration — this week’s policy focus at the White House — but there haven’t been any about the NSA. But that doesn’t mean the White House doesn’t care what’s being said: the surrogate said administration officials have been available to talk about it and have mounted a “vigorous defense” of the president, but said blast emails have not gone out.
A White House aide did not respond on the record to a request for comment from BuzzFeed about private communications with Congressional and outside allies about the NSA story.
Whether or not the NSA script was written in one place or evolved organically among politicians who all agree the programs should continue, the result is good for the White House. Obama has backup when his administration says Congress knew about the scope of the NSA program and that leaking the details of still-vital programs damages national security.
The politics of Snowden’s leaks are not completely set, but the similar-sounding line coming out of the White House and top leadership on both the Democratic and Republican side suggests those who hoped to see sweeping changes to the nation’s national security stance are fighting an uphill battle. The libertarian-liberal coalition that emerged after Snowden’s leaks were first published is still crafting legislation and building support, but so far they’re still up against a largely united front including the top leaders across Washington.