This piece is part of a weekly series in which WAL Contributor Ryan Ripley follows the moves of libertarian Republican Justin Amash.
“The American people have an expectation of privacy. If you go back to your district and talk to the American people as I’ve done, they will tell you that they expect this information to be kept private.”
Last week the story was about Congressman Amash’s attempt to pass an amendment that would have forced the federal government to specifically identify targets and produce probable cause before warrants could be issued to spy on American citizens under section 215 of the Patriot Act. While the amendment failed 205-217, the vote was surprising close and sparked a national debate that few could have predicted.
The question on the minds of many in Michigan is whether or not Amash will parlay his new found fame in to a Senatorial campaign. Politico reported that while he has not made any decisions, Amash downplayed the speculation that he’s interested in the open Senate seat currently held by retiring Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). He did say that a decision would have to be made by the fall.
“Otherwise it becomes a very difficult battle and it’s already a difficult battle, no matter what,” Amash said. “This is a Democratic state, still, and for a Republican to win a Senate race you have to have a very good year for Republicans, so…”
It may end up being a battle for Amash regardless of the office he decides to run for next. The Hill reported that his fellow Michigan representative, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, took a swipe at him and called efforts to halt the NSA gathering phone data “dangerous.”
“What you’re doing is taking away the one tool that we know will allow us the nexus between a foreign terrorist overseas talking to someone in the United States,” Rogers said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It has saved real lives; real folks have come home with their legs…because of this program.”
This argument made its way around the nightly news shows this past week and is indicative of the “security over liberty” position that establishment Republican lawmakers insist on making. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie jumped in to the fray and invoked 9/11 as he attacked the “strain of libertarianism” that he believes threatens the NSA surveillance programs.
“As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought,” Christie told Politico.
Amash was especially critical of this tactic when talking to Mike Wallace on Fox News Sunday. He clearly stated that the “security over liberty” line of thought is counter to the spirit and intention of the Fourth Amendment.
“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you would have national security justifications for violating people’s rights,” Amash explained.
During the interview with Wallace, Amash also confirmed his position that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. His opinion was based largely on Snowden providing information that both Congress and the American people needed to know.
“He may be doing things overseas that we would find problematic, that we would find dangerous,” Amash said. “We’ll find those facts out over time, but as far as Congress is concerned, sure, he’s a whistleblower. He told us what we needed to know.”
The oversight problem was amplified this week by Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece in the Guardian that demonstrates how difficult it is for congressmen to get answers from the NSA about surveillance programs and the policies that they follow. Amash explained to the Washington Post that such gaps in knowledge make it nearly impossible for true congressional oversight to occur.
“Members of Congress were not really aware, on the whole, about what these programs were being used for — the extent to which they were being used,” Amash said. “Members of the intelligence community were told, but members who are rank-and-file members didn’t have the information.”
Following the revelation from the Guardian that the majority of our online activity is being captured under the XKEYGEN program, Amash discussed this program and other NSA activities with Anderson Cooper on CNN. Topics ranged from privacy to how different types of whistleblowers are treated. When Cooper asked whether or not Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to congress, Amash did not hold back.
“Yes, he did lie. He lied to Congress. He lied to the American people,” Amash continued. “I have called for him to step down, and I think he should face the same consequences any American would face who came to Congress and gave false testimony or did so in a court proceeding and any ordinary American might be facing prison time for that.”
On The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Congressman Amash and Jane Harman debated the constitutionality of how the NSA interprets and implements section 215 of the Patriot Act. Amash rejected the notion of meta-data and put the problem in to proper perspective.
“It would be no different if someone came in to your house and made copies of all of your documents and said ‘Hey don’t worry, we’re just collecting these documents. We’re not going to look at them. We just want to have copies of them in case we need them in the future.’ That’s a violation of the 4th Amendment.”
Wrapping up the week, Amash appeared at a liberty rally at George Mason University which was billed as “The Political Conference Where Justin Amash Is Bigger Than Bieber” by Time Magazine. That’s not a bad way to round out a week of arguing with the talking heads over the NSA. Having 300 college students show a frenzied appreciation of your work must be humbling and hopefully indicative of the rising acceptance of libertarian principles and the growing support for Congressman Amash and like-minded representatives in Washington.