Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
Late last year a group called the Tenth Amendment Center proposed model legislation designed to give states new methods to oppose the National Security Agency (NSA). It included a proposal to cut off the water supply at the NSA’s Utah data center, and at the time I wrote about both the encouraging and troubling aspects of it. The short version is this: It’s nice to see groups looking for innovative ways to undercut the surveillance state, but seeing them come from groups that also believe in, say, nullification is unsettling.
An issue like government spying doesn’t cut along traditional conservative/liberal lines, though. It’s more of an insiders versus outsiders issue. In Washington both parties seem comfortable with the status quo, or at least not sufficiently disturbed by it to challenge it. Somehow even those who like to make the right noises about it, like Rand Paul, end up finding ways to oppose even the mildest reforms. Proposals to change intelligence agencies always come up short of getting enough support to take action.
Based on that history, it’s an exercise in futility to look to the capitol for reform – which means looking for unconventional coalitions elsewhere. The problem in this case is that an outsider coalition is not equal. Civil libertarians on the left are typically characterized in the media as extremists, those on the right as patriots. Cliven Bundy brandishes weapons at federal agents and is defending the Constitution; protesters in Ferguson press their case for civil rights and are regarded as radicals.
That dynamic is currently at play in Utah: the model legislation is now a bill from Republican lawmakers. The Washington Post gave a respectful presentation of it, and quoted the sponsors warmly:
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts (R), would prohibit any municipality from providing “material support or assistance in any form to any federal data collection and surveillance agency.”
Roberts on Wednesday said the NSA came to Utah pledging to act according to the Constitution. “We all know and are aware that has been violated,” he told the committee, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
And here are some stirring quotes from the Tribune article:
“I just don’t want to subsidize what they’re doing on the back of our citizens,” said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.
Joe Levi, the vice chair of the Davis County Republican Party and a Web administrator and senior editor of the website pocketnow.com, said jokes about how the NSA has already read the bill point to the problem with the spy agency.
“This is not a bill just about a data center,” Levi said. “This is a bill about civil rights.”
Neither article goes into the questionable provenance of the bill. It’s just taken at face value that these lawmakers arrived at their opinions independently and that their concern for the Constitution is all that informs them. Tracing it back to the Tenth Amendment Center (to say nothing of the unsavory history of nullification) would seem to be an important bit of context. But nope: they say civil rights and that’s good enough.
This puts civil libertarians on the left in a jam. On its face the bill is great. It’s a creative way to push back against an aggrandized and unaccountable intelligence apparatus. The NSA does what it wants when it wants and never sees any adverse consequences. Seeing anyone, anywhere successfully opposing it would be really encouraging. And maybe only the far right has the good will from political and media elites to try something like that. Maybe there’s an “only Nixon could go to China” quality to it.
It’s damned unnerving, though, to think through where a successful effort along these lines could end up. This is purely a product of the right. It’s not like the ACLU is being invited to offer support of it, or to lobby Democrats for its passage. If this is what ends up being the way forward, the left will be at best junior partners to these efforts, at worst cheerleaders. Meanwhile, the Tenth Amendment Center gains prestige and begins to emerge as an ALEC of nullification, offering draft legislation to legislators for new and exciting adventures in states’ rights.
As a liberal, I consider all of that and think: Here’s to Roberts and company’s success. But not too much of it.