House Speaker John Boehner calls Edward Snowden a “traitor.” The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, labels his brave whistleblowing “an act of treason.” What about the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus?
As the largest caucus of Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Progressive Caucus could supply a principled counterweight to the bombast coming from the likes of Boehner and Feinstein. But for that to happen, leaders of the 75-member caucus would need to set a good example by putting up a real fight.
Right now, even when we hear some promising words, the extent of the political resolve behind them is hazy.
“This indiscriminate data collection undermines Americans’ basic freedoms,” Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison said about NSA spying on phone records. He added: “Our citizens’ right to privacy is fundamental and non-negotiable ... The program we’re hearing about today seems not to respect that boundary. It, and any other programs the NSA is running with other telecom companies, should end.”
The other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva, was blunt. “A secretive intelligence agency gathering millions of phone records and using them as it sees fit is the kind of excess many of us warned about after the Patriot Act became law,” he said. “Continuing this program indefinitely gives the impression of being under constant siege and needing to know everything at all times to keep us safe, which I find a very troubling view of American security policy.”
And Grijalva said pointedly: “We’re being assured that this is limited, supervised and no big deal. When we heard the same under President Bush, we weren’t comfortable taking his word for it and moving on. I feel the same today.”
The five vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are a mixed civil-liberties bag.
Judy Chu of California put out a vapid statement, calling for “release of unclassified reports by the administration on how FISA powers are used” and offering the bromide “need to strike a balance between clandestine efforts and transparency.”
Rhode Island’s David Cicilline called the NSA spying on phone records and the Internet “very disturbing.” But he went on to merely state that “the federal government has a responsibility to both ensure our national security and maintain every citizen's essential right to privacy.”
Michael Honda, who faces a corporate challenger next year in his digital tech-heavy district in the San Jose area, had this to say: “I am deeply disturbed by the National Security Agency's wholesale surveillance of phone and online activity of Americans without just cause. . . . I believe all Americans should be extremely wary of this type of large-scale data gathering of personal, private online data.”
Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee in the House, displayed her proficiency at national-security babble while sidestepping huge violations of civil liberties. She touted a need to reduce use of private contractors and “repair deficiencies in the security clearance system.”
Jan Schakowsky, a representative from Chicago who’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, put out a statement saying: “I have had longstanding concerns with the broad surveillance powers Congress has given intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency.”
But nice-sounding statements don’t cause big changes in policies.
If the past is any guide, leaders and other members of the Progressive Caucus will periodically say things that appeal to progressive constituencies back home -- without throwing down the gauntlet and battling an administration that has made clear its contempt for essential civil liberties.
The potential and the problem are perhaps best symbolized by the Progressive Caucus whip, Barbara Lee of California, arguably the strongest progressive in the House.
Lee provided a good statement to a local newspaper, saying: “The right to privacy in this country is non-negotiable. We have a system of checks and balances in place to protect our most basic civil liberties, and while I believe that national security is paramount, we must move forward in a way that does not sacrifice our American values and freedoms.”
Yet a full week after the NSA surveillance story broke, there wasn’t any news release on the subject to be found on Congresswoman Lee’s official website. She had not issued any other statement on the scandal.
If the most progressive members of Congress aren’t willing to go to the mat against fellow-Democrat Obama over an issue as profound as the Bill of Rights, the result will be a tragic failure of leadership -- as well as an irreparable disaster for the United States of America.
And how about speaking up for Edward Snowden while some in both parties on Capitol Hill are calling him a traitor and pronouncing him guilty of treason? Public mention of the virtues of his courageous whistleblowing seems to be a congressional bridge way too far.
So, as in countless other moments of history, “when the people lead, the leaders will follow” -- and only then.
You can help lead if you sign the petition “Thank NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden” by clicking here.