The Democratic Party is largely conflicted on the issue of domestic surveillance. This stems, at least in part, from the complexity of balancing national security, internal tranquility, privacy, and effective law enforcement.
What Is Domestic Surveillance?
Domestic surveillance is any program to monitor people within the country. In the United States this is normally under the domain of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as part of their criminal investigations. However, the surveillance can include includes efforts of 17 agencies, including the National Security Agency. Due to its power and name recognition, “NSA” is often used to refer to the security apparatus as whole. While not entirely accurate, the exact intricacies of the apparatus are not well-understood by the general public. At times, the operations are directly obscured to preserve current, past or future investigations.
The whole matter received a major realignment after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the 2001 anthrax attacks. The changes were in part the result of failures by the then-extant security apparatus to effectively communicate their concerns. As a result, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, which was a dramatic change in virtually all parts of the system and its operations. That passed with bipartisanship support—357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush and became effective on Oct. 26, 2001. Although the bill focused heavily on international programs, it also included changes in domestic systems.
Evolution of Domestic Surveillance
A number of the domestic systems included in the PATRIOT Act have changed in the years since its passage, but the various parts have been reauthorized during Democratic and Republican administrations, always by bipartisan votes. At various times, top Democrats have announced their opposition to the system, but the current program appears to be one largely of acquiescence, as seen by last year’s debate over perhaps the most contentious section of the law—Section 702.
The name is a reference to a section of the law which allows the government to monitor a variety of internet communications involving foreign nationals. The concern is that the NSA will use this to examine American communications. For example, a French person could send an e-mail to someone in Nebraska. That might be caught and read by the NSA, exposing the Nebraskan’s personal information. It was re-extended for six years by a bipartisan vote on Jan. 18, 2018. This was opposed by many rank-and-file Democrats, but the party allowed an open vote, with a number signing on to the agreement. Attempts to include additional limits or more oversight were unsuccessful. A number of sources have blamed the passage of this bills on the Democrats abandoning their earlier use of domestic surveillance. This has led to accusations that they are content to use domestic surveillance as a campaign tool, but unwilling to abandon it when it power.
Edward Snowden’s Domestic Surveillance Revelations
This is an echo of the historic 2013 revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013, a contractor in the intelligence community. He provided thousands of documents that revealed a number of ongoing programs and policies troubling for privacy advocates. Far from a complete picture of the government’s efforts, his materials were generally connected with the NSA. This led to a great deal of introspection and a series of acts undertaken by various legislators. Notably, the legal actions against Snowden came from Democratic President Barack Obama and were supported by the party as a whole. Snowden fled the country and is charged with multiple felonies. His passport was canceled and he ultimately fled to Russia, where he was granted asylum. Obama’s administration put a great deal of pressure on the Russian government to extradite Snowden. They also issued warrants and requests to other countries, should Snowden attempt to leave Russia or be expelled.
“I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations. Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy,” said President Barack Obama in a January 2014 speech. This came halfway through his second and final term as president.
At that same speech, Obama announced a number of reforms, some of which came as the result of Snowden’s leaks. Democrat Hillary Clinton noted it was “unusual” that Snowden had relied on China and Russia, two of America’s great rivals, to avoid arrest after the incident.
Democratic Party Statements Regarding Domestic Surveillance
This has further muddied the waters on what Democrats desire regarding domestic surveillance. Although the argument is often cast as a balancing act of privacy and safety, the party
The official Democratic party platform, adopted in 2016, makes no direct mention of domestic surveillance. However, it does imply an opposition to such actions, particularly under the heading of “Protect Our Values,” under the subsection about “Civil Society:” which states, “Democrats support progress toward more accountable governance and universal rights…We will support strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and equality for women and minorities. We will bolster the development of civil society and representative institutions that can protect fundamental human rights and improve the quality of life for all citizens, including independent and democratic unions.”
This discussion is largely aimed at actions within other countries, encouraging the development of a free and open society. However, it also states these goals are appropriate within the United States.
The party is scheduled to adopt a new platform at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, which may give some guidance to the party’s opinion on the matter. However, they may choose again to leave it out of their platform, leaving the entire matter somewhat unclear.
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