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

While serving on the Homeland Security Committee, Collins and former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., co-authored the law creating the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which advises the executive branch on civil liberties issues tied to anti-terrorism efforts.

“I have supported strengthening the role of the PCLOB in reviewing the Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism programs,” Collins said in January. “I also have supported reforms to improve transparency, accountability, and oversight of the NSA’s activities while also preserving the effectiveness of our counterterrorism efforts.”

But when the issue of NSA surveillance comes up, Collins often focuses on the national security implications of the Snowden revelations and the harm that intelligence officials insist the disclosures have already done to terrorist surveillance activities.

ECONOMY AND CIVIL LIBERTIES

Bellows agreed that “all across Maine the economy is first and foremost” on voters’ minds.

In recent weeks, Bellows has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour – an issue being pushed hard by President Obama and congressional Democrats – and has called for “bold federal action” on climate change to spur job creation in the clean-energy sector.

But Bellows is best known for her work on civil liberties and constitutional rights issues during her eight years at the Maine ACLU. For instance, she played a prominent role in the battles to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine and to restore same-day voter registration.

Bellows was also a key player in the Legislature’s passage of two bills requiring police to obtain warrants to get location information from a person’s cellphone and to conduct surveillance with drones. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed both bills but lawmakers overrode his objections on the cellphone bill.

On the campaign trail, she frequently mentions civil liberties issues and the NSA spying controversy and has called for a repeal of the USA Patriot Act, the post-9/11 bill that greatly expanded the nation’s intelligence collection capabilities.

“On the issues of the Patriot Act and NSA spying, Senator Collins and I strongly disagree,” Bellows said. “I am running to restore constitutional freedoms and trust in government agencies.”

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said it is smart for Bellows to play up her experience and past high-profile roles on civil liberties issues. It could give Democrats – as well as some Republicans – another reason to vote against Collins, a moderate who has enjoyed strong cross-party support in the past.

Melcher speculated that Bellows’ focus on civil liberties issues could also have helped her raise more than $330,000 in less than three months. She outpaced Collins during that period, although the incumbent still began 2014 with a campaign war chest roughly 10 times the size of Bellows’.

Melcher noted, however, that Collins has a long track record on national security issues and that many Mainers value having representatives in influential positions in Washington.

“I think most people are concerned about issues such as the economy and jobs more than about national security,” Melcher said. “But the people who care about this issue care a lot.”

METADATA AND THE PATRIOT ACT

Meanwhile, official Washington remains deeply divided over the issue as well.

The privacy board that Collins and Lieberman created said in January that a key provision of the Patriot Act “does not provide an adequate legal basis to support the (metadata) program.” That report is contrary to more than 30 rulings from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act judges supporting the data collection under the Patriot Act.

Also, the privacy board report struck a blow to one defense of the program by stating that the board had “not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”

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