How Michelle Bachmann Learned to Love Massive Government Surveillance

The Atlantic
How Michelle Bachmann Learned to Love Massive Government Surveillance
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How Michelle Bachmann Learned to Love Massive Government Surveillance

Last night’s vote on the Amash amendment made seemingly strange bedfellows: as more House Democrats than Republicans voted for the anti-NSA measure, Michele Bachman emerged as a defender of the Obama administration's bulk collection of phone metadata. Bachmann, who believes that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated, and influences, the federal government, would like the federal government to retain their secret powers of surveillance on millions of Americans. As quoted by the National Review, Bachmann said on Wednesday, just before the vote:

“If we take this program and remove from the United States the distinct advantage that we have versus any other country,” she argued, ”it will be those who are seeking to achieve the goals of Islamic jihad who will benefit by putting the United States at risk, and it will be the United States which will be at risk. I believe that we need to win the War on Terror,” she continued. “We need to defeat the goals and aims of Islamic jihad, and for that reason I will be voting no on the Amash amendment.”

Bachmann, who built her political reputation as an anti-establishment Tea Party champion and has been quick to accuse Obama of turning the U.S. into a dictatorship on a range of issues from Obamacare to contraception to the debt ceiling to cap-and-trade. But on mass surveillance of Americans she joins Peter King, who has called for the prosecution of journalist Glenn Greenwald, House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon, and a handful of conservative and anti-sharia national security writers in, at least partially, defending the NSA’s spying powers. Those include the National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, the Center for Security Policy’s Frank Gaffney, and the Heritage Foundation, all of whom, one would think, would stand against trusting the government to play nicely with sweeping, secret, surveillance powers. So what’s going on?

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In part, as Greenwald outlined this morning, the NSA debate has forced the traditional divisions of left vs. right to the sideline as unlikely political alliances form over the states of the role, and scope, of a national security state. And those divisions, which seem so unnatural in the context of our normal political narrative, are doing some interesting things to how the Tea Party is seen. The Tea Party presents itself as a secular coalition of anti-government grassroots activism — "TEA," as many activists have will point out, was meant to stand for "Taxed enough already." Bachman once  For her NSA remarks, one-time Bachmann booster and Tea Party television hero Glenn Beck said on Thursday, “Michele B- is not dead to me, but she is in very ill health.”  But the Tea Party movement itself as a political force shares a substantial part of its infrastructure and funding with that of the more authoritarian, and politically experienced, religious right. Those existing divisions, coupled with the Tea Party's embrace of proponents of an anti-Islamic, conservative ideology, has helped to divided the movement over which thing to fear more: the authoritarian national security state or the threat of Islamic terrorism? 

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Rep. Justin Amash, who introduced the anti-NSA amendment, is a Tea Partier, too. He's politically aligned with Grover Norquist (who, by the way, is one of the biggest subjects of Frank Gaffney's ire) and the libertarian wing of the movement, who overall strongly oppose the NSA's data collection methods and scope. Bachmann, on the other hand, sources her particular thoughts on the threat of Islamic jihad to a small but passionate group of conservative activists who believe that Islam represents an acute threat to the U.S.. They believe that the country is endangered by a massive conspiracy involving Muslim-American advocacy groups, mosques and Islamic leaders in the U.S., and basically everyone who disagrees with them: the media, academia, and so on. And while, among those writers, the revelations of the NSA data collection program have been mixed (Pamela Geller, for instance, has been more critical of the program, as has Diana West, who is normally in line with Gaffney’s views), its goals align, in a way, with the sort of national security efforts promoted by the anti-sharia community for years.

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Gaffney, McCarthy, (and, for the record, West) were all among the co-authors on a 2010 report nicknamed the Team B II report, which outlined what has become the main thrust of the anti-sharia national security policy movement ever since. As followers of the Peter King hearings on "homegrown terrorism," or readers of the Associated Press’s Pulitzer-winning series of reports on Muslim surveillance by the NYPD might already know, that policy advocates for increased, bulk surveillance — on Muslims. Specifically, the report takes quite a lot of time outlining a theological interpretation of Islam which, if believed, would make it impossible to rule out any Muslim from any broad search for terrorism in the U.S. Their argument, among other things, relies on an interpretation of the doctrine of Taqiyya in Islam (which, more or less, allows Muslims to avoid death from religious persecution by denying their faith) that suggests that any Muslim, for any reason, is religiously compelled to lie in the face of questioning. The report also provides the extensive justification for Gaffney et al.’s short-handing of Sharia (which refers to Islamic law and practice in the broadest sense) as a fundamentalist, extremist form of Islam. From there, the report suggests that the American intelligence community’s main challenge when confronting global terrorism isn’t the scope of its reach, it’s the fact that it doesn’t engage in racial profiling enough. “Today, analysts jeopardize their careers if they try to use accurate language to define the enemy threat doctrine,” the report argues, calling the failure of local and national security operatives to target the Muslim population of the U.S. a “dereliction of duty.”

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This idea was repeated critically in the context of the current NSA scandal by Robert Spencer, another anti-sharia writer:

This surveillance scandal arises out of our national bipartisan unwillingness to face the reality of Islamic jihad. Because we all agree that Islam is a religion of peace, we can't possibly address where the threat is really coming from, and monitor mosques or subject Muslims with Islamic supremacist ties to greater surveillance. Instead, we have to pretend that anyone and everyone is a potential terrorist, and surveil everyone.

Indeed, some law enforcement and national security officials, like NYPD police chief (and possible Homeland Security Department Secretary candidate) Ray Kelly, have taken the profiling approach to bulk surveillance to heart — Kelly even helped out on the production of an anti-Muslim film, "The Third Jihad," that in turn influenced the NYPD's targeting of Muslims in and around New York. But it is doubtful that Bachmann is really defending the national security approach to NSA data collection as it stands today. The Amash amendment, which would protect everyone from warrantless phone metadata collection, would also shut the door for the NSA to continue a long-standing secret surveillance program targeting Muslims only, which seems to be what the anti-sharia national security sphere is really after, anyway. For Gaffney et al., defending an expansion of surveillance efforts against American Muslims, should the national security complex be won over by their arguments, is worth the temporary constitutional inconvenience of secret data collection affecting millions (including Muslims) with no ties to terrorist groups or plots. So far, the Obama administration has kept quiet on their support from unlikely corners on this issue. And as the NSA story continues to illuminate political affinities that don't speak to our conventional understanding of American politics, it's easier and easier to see why. 

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