March 12

Collins challenger among candidates who see potent weapon in surveillance issue

Opposition to domestic spying appeals to a range of midterm hopefuls, from progressives to tea partiers.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Democrat Shenna Bellows, who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in November's election,sees the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities as a winning argument against incumbents who have defended aspects of the programs.

2013 Telegram File Photo/John Patriquin

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Sen. Susan Collins' campaign says she is listening to arguments from both sides of the NSA surveillance issue but that most Mainers are concerned about other topics.

2012 Telegram File Photo/Gordon Chibroski

And experts in the politics of national security said the relatively muted public reaction is telling, both for the prospects of major surveillance-reform efforts and the issue’s resonance with voters this year.

“It’s a really peculiar controversy,” said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas and author of the book “Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence.”

CONCERN, BUT NOT OUTRAGE

Unlike past intelligence scandals, Rovner said, the NSA/Snowden affair does not involve “clear bad behavior, such as targeting specific Americans, or clear violations of the law.” The result appears to be concern but not widespread outrage, he said. Intelligence officials insist they are merely doing as directed after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

“In one way, this is like a scandal looking for a victim and until you find that victim I don’t think you will see a huge level of controversy over this,” said Rovner. “I haven’t seen the evidence that this is a real political issue or even an electoral issue yet.”

David Schanzer, an associate professor in Duke University’s School of Public Policy who specializes in national security issues, said NSA surveillance is “probably a third-order kind of issue for most voters.” While it may resonate with some voters, he is skeptical many will vote solely on the issue.

“Despite the (news coverage), there has not been one iota of evidence that anyone in government has abused this authority. So where is the smoking gun?” said Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “Until there is some sense that the government is out of control and is taking this information to look at people who are not terrorists, ... I think it is hard for that story to get legs.”

But John Mueller, chairman of Ohio State University’s national security studies program, noted that this is the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that a substantial number of people have said they oppose an anti-terror program. So while it may not be a vital question to many, Mueller believes the issue might resonate politically.

“The fact that Pew finds an increasing number questioning the program is impressive,” said Mueller, author of the book “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.” “But critics would be wise to stress not only the privacy concerns, but the fact that the program has been of such limited value in catching terrorists. And they should be prepared to counter the argument that it has been effective – even though there is little evidence to support that contention.”

Collins’ office did not grant repeated requests for an interview with the senator. Kelley, her spokesman, said in a written statement that Collins “supports legislation to increase oversight of NSA activities because she recognizes that the laws governing intelligence activities need to be updated to reflect current technology.”

The NSA’s “metadata” program involves the collection of billions of phone call records specifying who called whom and when the calls were made as the agency tries to find connections between known terrorists and U.S. residents.

Collins has defended the NSA’s domestic collection programs by pointing out that the metadata are composed of raw phone call records and that intelligence agencies would need a warrant to listen to conversations.

She has also co-sponsored amendments to a pending bill that would provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with independent analysis on privacy issues related to surveillance programs.

In addition, Collins has had a hand in shaping counterterrorism policies as a former chairman and then ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and, most recently, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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