Scott Walker still stumbles — a lot — when he starts talking about national security issues. Just last week, he claimed Prime Minister David Cameron told him that Great Britain was unhappy with President Obama's leadership — only to have Cameron’s office formally announce, “The prime minister did not say that and does not think that.”
But as he lurches toward a 2016 presidential candidacy, Walker is developing a distinct reputation among the announced and prospective Republican contenders. The governor of Wisconsin may not know a lot about the issues, but he knows that he is a hardliner — refusing to rule out new wars in the Middle East and refusing to respect the concerns of the great mass of Americans with regard to mass surveillance.
Walker is way out of touch with the voters when it comes to spying. In fact, he’s out of touch even with his fellow Republicans on the issue.
Polling shows that Americans are enthusiastic about renewing the privacy rights that were undermined by the USA Patriot Act, and that they are unsettled by government and corporate data mining. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 74 percent of Americans say they should not have to give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety, while just 22 percent believe that sacrifices of constitutional rights are necessary. Specifically, a clear majority of American voters object to having the U.S. government collect telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.
Congress has not caught up with the American people. But it’s getting there.
In early June, the U.S. Senate voted to enact some modest reforms that were designed to address National Security Agency abuses. However, that vote came only after a brutal debate that exposed rifts within the Republican Party over renewal of Patriot Act provisions. Indiana Sen. Dan Coats grumbled that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was “lying” when Paul objected that supposed “reforms” of rules governing surveillance did not do enough to protect privacy rights. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP's presidential nominee in 2008, was even rougher on Paul, a current presidential candidate. “He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation,” McCain said of Paul.
Paul countered, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
The wrangling briefly prevented “reforms” of the Patriot Act as outlined in the so-called “USA Freedom Act," which Paul explains does not really end the government’s bulk-data program — just rearranges it by setting up a situation where phone companies “may do the same thing” as the NSA. And the NSA may then access the data.
Paul’s objections led Republican leaders in the Senate, who initially grumbled that the USA Freedom Act could go too far in limiting intelligence gathering, to accept the measure. That was a victory for Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who formerly served as House Judiciary Committee chairman, the sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.
Sensenbrenner’s legislation is at best a frustrating compromise, not real reform. The right response, as outlined by Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, would have repealed federal dragnet surveillance laws, while overhauling the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
“The warrantless collection of millions of personal communications from innocent Americans is a direct violation of our constitutional right to privacy,” says Pocan, who has worked with libertarian-leaning Republicans on this issue. “Revelations about the NSA’s programs reveal the extraordinary extent to which the program has invaded Americans’ privacy. I reject the notion that we must sacrifice liberty for security — we can live in a secure nation which also upholds a strong commitment to civil liberties.”
So Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsinite, proposed and got a little reform. Pocan, another Wisconsinite, sought but did not achieve real reform.
What of the Wisconsinite who is running for the Republican nomination for president? He must have been with Congressman Sensenbrenner, his fellow Wisconsinite, or perhaps with Paul, his fellow Republican presidential prospect.
Walker says he is not inclined to place significant new restrictions on the government’s ability to monitor phone records. Walker told reporters in New Hampshire that he opposed Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act because, he claimed, it goes too far in regulating the NSA’s mass-surveillance program.
Walker is wrong with regard to the constitutional concerns raised by Republicans and Democrats and he is wrong on the details of the current fight.
“I would prefer to have something closer to the Patriot Act intact,” said Walker. “I think there needs to be the capacity, if we have in America enemy combatants, or people in line with enemy combatants, we need to be able to gain access to information that would help assist us,” the governor said in response to a question from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Keep the Patriot Act intact? Seriously?
Everyone has gripes about the Patriot Act. Well, everyone except Scott Walker.
Walker definitely disagrees with Rand Paul.
But it is not clear that he understands the issue at hand.
The governor said in interviews last month that he favors “trying to create some sort of balance to make sure the Patriot Act doesn’t run out.” And he tried to suggest that Sensenbrenner was seeking to strike that balance.
Sensenbrenner said the governor was “misinformed.”
“Continuing the present program is not the proper balance between privacy and national security,” Sensenbrenner explained. “There is no privacy if the government ends up collecting trillions of phone records made by Americans and storing it for five years.”
The debate about domestic spying has evolved a great deal since just one senator, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. Now there is broad concern about mass surveillance, in the Democratic and the Republican parties.
But there is one throwback candidate, Scott Walker, who “would prefer to have something closer to the Patriot Act intact.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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