The Loneliest Spies

Why the Republican Party may not always want to be “tough” on national security.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during a news conference.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 13, 2013. Behind him from left are Electronic Privacy Information Center Executive Director Marc Rotenberg, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union, Bruce Fein, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and Matt Hawes of Campaign For Liberty.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Seven years ago, when Republicans panicked about losing the House or the Senate to Democrats, they reached for a familiar bludgeon. The other party was “weak” on national security, wasn’t it? It wasn’t so committed to “fighting terror,” was it?

So Democrats in some close races were confronted with spooky-scary terrorism TV ads. The classic, by general agreement, was the spot run against Democrat Chris Murphy by incumbent Connecticut Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson. With imagery purloined from direct-to-DVD thrillers, the ad asked voters to consider whether they’d vote for a Democrat who questioned the National Security Agency’s program of tracking calls. “A terrorist plot may be unfolding,” huffed the narrator. “Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says, ‘Act immediately. Lives may be at stake.’ ”

Republicans loved that ad. Washington Post race-watcher Chris Cillizza called it one of the 10 best spots of the 2006 cycle. “Interestingly,” he added, “though this ad was cited as one of the cycle’s best by numerous operatives of both partisan stripes, one GOP strategist noted that Johnson’s numbers actually went down after the spot aired.” Yep. Johnson was felled in a 12-point landslide, in a district where only 1,112 votes had separated George W. Bush from John Kerry.

Today, the strategists who worked on that ad shrug at the results—it was a bad year. Murphy, now the junior senator from Connecticut, knows the ad backfired. “The central argument of the campaign against me in 2006 was my opposition to Bush’s wiretapping program,” he says. “I voted against the extension of the Patriot Act provisions that authorized a lot of what we’re talking about today. I’ve always been a skeptic of giving government too much power when it comes to data.”

But who isn’t a skeptic? The loneliest politician in Washington this week is the one who will stand straight and defend the NSA’s PRISM program. The sherpas of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, have sworn to reporters that the program didn’t sweep innocent people into the dragnet.

They’re not quite rushing to defend it. House Speaker John Boehner uttered a fairly strong endorsement at his weekly presser—“These programs have helped keep America safe”—but behind his back, he tried to toss the buck back to President Obama. “Frankly, I’m a little surprised that the White House hasn’t stood up and made clear on an ongoing basis over the last week just how important these programs are.” There you go: That’s as much rhetorical support as Congress is going to give right now.

Even if the House and Senate leave the NSA’s programs untouched, the new paranoia is a welcome return to norms. The post-9/11 Republican thrill for security schemes had a little to do with the power of the defense industry (which has yet to suffer from this scandal) and a lot to do with politics. There’s a Democrat in the White House now. The men and women who make up the Republican base already assumed he was tracking their behavior, softening them up for death panels.

That was the gist of Thursday’s marquee bout of NSA-shaming, when Sen. Rand Paul brought a half-dozen House Republicans together with civil liberties groups to announce plans for some sort of lawsuit. “Following up on the heels of the IRS scandal and other things, where information was used to persecute political enemies, this should be scaring everyone,” said Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert. “If my liberal friends who don’t think it’s that big a deal would just think—what if someone who’s radically conservative, way to the right of me, you don’t think if this isn’t stopped, they’ll come after liberals?”

He was describing the fears liberals had first, years ago. As long as there’s been a Patriot Act Section 215, liberals have worried that the definitions of “relevance” and “electronic surveillance” would apply to left-wing groups. Now conservatives are convinced they’ll apply to right-wing groups, so even the defenders of the Bush-era programs are feeling nihilistic.

There are really three schools of nihilism. The first: Obama’s the problem. In this scenario, the security state could function well enough if an Alinskyite wasn’t at the top. “The real danger to me,” said Rush Limbaugh this week, “is not one or two rogue employees at the IRS or the NSA or the CIA. The real danger is having a rogue administration. And we do.”

The second school says Obama lost his way. In this scenario, a president who used to agree with civil libertarians succumbed to spy-creep. “Six years ago, President Obama told us there were no shortcuts when it came to keeping America safe,” mourned Rep. Mick Mulvaney on Thursday. “He was right. I’m confused then as to why the president’s chosen to take the mother of all shortcuts right through our personal information.”

And the third, most powerful school believes we were lied to all along. Gohmert, who typically makes headlines for embarrassing himself during hearings or floor speeches, was in a mea culpa mood at Paul’s lawsuit shindig on Thursday. He’d been a freshman congressman in 2005, during the first Patriot Act renewal. “I was really troubled about sections 206 and 215, really had concerns about it. The day before our full committee took it up, all of us that wanted sunsets got calls from the administration, the DOJ, people in committee, saying, ‘Here, we’ll give you this, just drop the sunsets. You can trust the Justice Department. You can trust Homeland Security.’ We had all the assurances, you don’t have to worry.”

Gohmert shook his head. “They said they were not doing the very things they were doing. They said if you were not calling foreign terrorists, you had nothing to worry about. I’ve even used that line on the House floor.”

Is this the full-on mainstream GOP position? Not yet. It’s just the popular position. It’s what the base thinks. Clip and save those old ads bragging about how much Republicans backed America’s spies, because you won’t see their like again.

Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs.