A man speaks on his cell phone in Grand Central Station, Oct. 15, 2013.
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RNC condemns NSA spying in huge turnaround

Updated

In a jarring break from the George W. Bush era, the Republican National Committee voted Friday to adopt a resolution demanding an investigation into the National Security Agency’s spy programs.

According to the resolution, the NSA metadata program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is deemed “an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” In addition, “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Titled a “Resolution To Renounce The National Security Agency’s Surveillance Program,” it was passed by a voice vote as part of a package of RNC proposals. Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions.

Nevada Committeewoman Diana Orrock told msnbc over the phone that she introduced the resolution at the RNC’s summer meeting, but she wasn’t able to attract the necessary co-sponsors to advance it until now. The only major change she says she made to secure support was to drop the word “unconstitutional” from the title.

“I have to thank Edward Snowden for bringing forth the blatant trampling of our First and Fourth Amendment rights in the guise of security,” she said. “Something had to be said. Something had to be done.”

This is, to put it mildly, a new position for the Republican National Committee. When the New York Times revealed that the NSA had wiretapped American citizens without warrants in late 2005, the RNC used their 2006 winter meeting to strongly defend the program’s national security value.

“Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells inside the United States?” Ken Mehlman, then RNC chair, told the RNC gathering in his keynote speech at the time.

This time around, per Orrock’s resolution, the RNC is declaring that “unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society and this program represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy and goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act.”

The RNC’s tidal shift reflects the reality that mass surveillance looks a lot more benign when your own party’s leader is in charge of the operation. But the resolution also is a sign of the increasing influence of the libertarian wing of the party, especially supporters of Ron Paul and his son, Rand Paul, who have made government overreach in pursuit of terrorists a top issue. Both Orrock and fellow Nevada Committeeman James Smack, who presented the resolution on her behalf, supported the elder Paul’s presidential campaign.

“I think it probably does reflect the views of many of the people who really want to turn out the vote and who are viewing the world through the prism of the next election,” Stewart Baker, a former Bush-era Homeland Security official, told msnbc in an email. “It’s a widespread view among Republicans, but I think the ones that know this institution best and for whom national security is a high priority don’t share this view.”

The resolution somewhat mangles the legal debate over NSA surveillance. The PRISM program mentioned by the RNC is tasked with monitoring foreign targets or conversations where only one of the parties is in the United States. Americans’ communications are sometimes collected “incidentally” and lawmakers have accused the agency of overreaching. But the “mass acquisition of Americans’ call details” in the resolution appears to refer to the NSA’s metadata collection, which is distinct from PRISM. The two programs derive their authority from different laws.

While the details are off, the overall critique is about as pointed as it gets.
 
“There appears to be very little daylight between the RNC and progressive challengers of the phone records program, such as the ACLU,” Stephen Vladeck, a professor of law at American University, told msnbc in an e-mail. 

The full text of the resolution is below:

RESOLUTION TO RENOUNCE THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY’S SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM

WHEREAS, the secret surveillance program called PRISM targets, among other things, the surveillance of communications of U.S. citizens on a vast scale and monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet;

WHEREAS, this dragnet program is, as far as we know, the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens, consisting of the mass acquisition of Americans’ call details encompassing all wireless and landline subscribers of the country’s three largest phone companies*;

WHEREAS, every time an American citizen makes a phone call, the NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation; all of which are an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution;

WHEREAS, the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, that warrants shall issue only upon probable cause, and generally prevents the American government from issuing modern-day writs of assistance;

WHEREAS, unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society and this program represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy and goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act; and

WHEREAS, Republican House Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the Patriot Act and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time of Section 215’s passage, called the Section 215 surveillance program “an abuse of that law,” writing that, “based on the scope of the released order, both the administration and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended;” therefore be it

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to enact legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make it clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity, phone records and correspondence – electronic, physical, and otherwise - of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee encourages Republican law makers to call for a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying and the committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance as well as hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance; and

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee calls upon Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs.

*AT&T has 107.3 million wireless customers and 31.2 million landline customers.
Verizon has 98.9 million wireless customers and 22.2 million landline customers while Sprint has 55 million customers in total.”

Adam Serwer contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version misattributed a partial quote to Stephen Vladeck. It has since been corrected. MSNBC regrets the error. 

RNC condemns NSA spying in huge turnaround

Updated