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Surveillance Revelations Spark Lackluster Public Discord

When a former IT contractor at the National Security Agency gave The Guardian U.S. government surveillance information, he told the paper that his only motivation was to spark a public debate about government surveillance.

"This is something that's not our place to decide," Edward Snowden said. "The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."

Although President Obama says he's not happy about the massive disclosure of classified information, he too says he wants a public debate: "How are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved. I welcome this debate."

And that's certainly what he got. The debate is scrambling the usual partisan equations. It's created another odd bedfellow alliance between the Libertarian right and the Civil Liberty left.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is threatening to file a class action lawsuit against the government. While the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is raising money for Snowden's defense.

Republicans are divided. On Fox News Sunday, strategist Mary Matalin said the public would see the NSA revelations as part and parcel with the other controversies swirling around the administration.

"What they can see is it's conflation with the IRS, horrible, horrible abuse of liberties and privacy. So you can't take these things in a vacuum," she said.

On the same program, Matalin's fellow conservative Bill Kristol disagreed.

"Republicans are making a huge mistake," he began. "They're getting a lot of data because they don't want to have to go to Verizon and AT&T and everyone else each time they get a phone number. That is totally different from the IRS abuses, which I think are very serious. And I think it's very important for conservatives and Republicans to make that distinction."

Because the political fault lines are so crisscrossed there appears to be little political danger for the president.

"In a strange way," says Republican Pollster Glen Bolger, "The president has caught a little bit of a lucky break with this coming out. It does take a lot of attention away from the triple challenges he was facing between the IRS, Benghazi and the AP reporters' subpoenas."

Not every scandal or controversy is created equal. Sometimes they cancel each other out, sometimes they add up to more than the sum of their parts. The biggest danger for the administration is that all the controversies further undermine the public's already diminished trust in government.

The president acknowledged this last week after a lengthy explanation of how the NSA programs were created, authorized and overseen by all three branches of government.

"If people can't trust not only the executive branch, but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here," Obama said.

Since those remarks on Friday, the president hasn't talked in public about the leak. The White House is referring questions to the Justice Department.

And that' left the stage to Eward Snowden who has been pretty savvy about how he's described his actions. Granted he fled the country but says former Clinton administration official Chris Lehane, he didn't try to hide his identity.

"Snowden has been really smart in terms of how he's positioning himself," Lehane says. "He came out almost immediately, explained why he was doing what he was doing, to try to put every single protection and shield around him that he could to try to prevent the administration from going after him by enlarging the issue and really pushing this need for a public debate."

In the long run, that might not help spare Snowden from the prison sentence he says he's prepared for but in the short term it's generated a lot of support. There are more than 53,000 signatures on a petition on the White House website calling for the president to pardon him.

But in The Guardian video, Snowden suggested that might not be enough: "The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America, for these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures, but they won't be willing to take the risks to stand up and fight to change things."

His fear may be well founded. Opinion polls show that the public is not up in arms. A Pew-Washington Post poll showed that 62 percent of Americans felt it was more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats than to protect personal privacy.

Maybe after years of giving up private information to Google or Facebook, Americans are resigned to doing the same for the government — as long as that information is not abused.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.