It's pretty lonely to be the National Security Agency right now. The revelation of a massive data-collection program has left many progressive senators criticizing the agency, from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. But one of the other most liberal senators in Congress is so far speaking out in NSA's support: Al Franken.
Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, knew about the data-mining. Or at least that's what he told Minnesota's WCCO on Tuesday. "I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people," Franken said. The senator also believes the data collection has saved American lives:
I have a high level of confidence that this is used to protect us, and I know that it has been successful in preventing terrorism.
There are certain things that are appropriate for me to know that is not appropriate for the bad guys to know.
Last Thursday, Franken issued a press release that expressed concern about the privacy-security balance in the NSA program.
Franken hasn't always been so forgiving of similar practices. At a September 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the reauthorization of expiring components of the USA Patriot Act, Franken read the Fourth Amendment to the assistant attorney general for national security as a means of questioning the act's "roving wiretap" provision. Franken would also eventually vote against a 2012 reauthorization of the FISA amendments that give the government wide surveillance authority.
In an early 2006 AlterNet interview before he was officially running for Senate, Franken disparaged the Bush administration's NSA warrantless-surveillance program, laughing off a similar rationale to the one he's used in part to justify the current program:
They're trying to justify these warrantless wiretaps by saying, "Oh, it's al-Qaida!" One guy is saying it's just al-Qaida--the Hayden guy, and then on the other hand, you hear from the FBI that they were inundated with referrals on all kinds of stuff with these calls, so much so that they couldn't get to their real work, and that none of the referrals led anywhere.
I think it's a Roveian strategy: "We win on national security; we'll scare people, and then we'll just win."
Update (5:45 PM): Sen. Al Franken's office emailed Wednesday evening to highlight several other parts of the senator's privacy and security record, including the senator's vote against the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization in 2011 due to transparency and privacy concerns. Before voting against reauthorizing the FISA amendments last year, Sen. Franken also cosponsored and voted for three amendments that his office says would have "improved the bill on transparency and privacy." All three amendments were defeated.
According to the senator's office, one of those defeated FISA amendments "was very similar" to a bill Sen. Franken introduced Tuesday with Senators Jeff Merkley and Mike Lee, which they say would make the FISA court's legal opinions more transparent.