It’s impossible to understand the furor over the revelations about NSA surveillance without realizing that in his assessment of the public mood, Obama was right: Americans are ready for the “war on terror” to end. They are no longer as terrified of al Qaeda. After 9/11, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who said it was “very” or “somewhat likely” that terrorists would strike the U.S. in the next few weeks hit 85 percent. By late 2011, it was down to 38 percent. It spiked to 51 percent after the Boston Marathon bombing, but absent another major attack that number will likely drop again. And as the public’s fear of terrorism has dropped, Americans have become less willing to sacrifice personal freedoms to fight it. After 9/11, roughly half were willing to surrender “basic civil liberties” to combat terror. Now that’s down to one quarter. Fifty-four percent of Americans supported “expanded government monitoring of cellphones and email” after 9/11, according to CNN. In 2006, it remained 52 percent. Now it’s down to 38 percent (PDF).
It’s hard to know exactly why most Americans now believe the “war on terror” is over. Obviously, a major reason is that, Boston notwithstanding, al Qaeda has not managed 9/11-scale attacks anywhere in the world. The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and the dramatic decline in coverage of the Afghan war, also may have reduced the public’s focus on jihadist terror. Finally, unlike the Bush administration, which went out of its way to scare Americans about the terrorist threat, the Obama administration has played it down.
Whatever the reason, it’s precisely because so many Americans believe they’re living in the post-post-9/11 age that the reaction to Obama’s surveillance program has been so fierce. In 2008, when Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, on which the Obama administration’s intrusions partly rely, every single Senate Republican and every House Republican except one voted to expand the government’s spying power. Today, by contrast, the GOP has a growing libertarian wing fervently opposed to surrendering individual freedom in the name of national security. These post–“war on terror” Republicans first proved they could cause the Obama administration fits in March when Sen. Rand Paul filibustered John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA until receiving an assurance that the government would never authorize drone strikes inside the U.S. Pro–national-security-state Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham ridiculed Paul’s filibuster, but Tea Party groups rallied behind him, as did newly elected GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. Soon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had joined the filibuster and the National Republican Senatorial Committee was raising money off it. Now a similar intra-GOP divide is playing out over the NSA disclosures. Seeing Obama’s policies as an extension of George W. Bush’s, Bush veterans Ari Fleischer and Karl Rove have defended Obama’s snooping. But led by Paul and Lee, a new crop of post-Bush, post–“war on terror” Republicans has taken the exact opposite stance. “We’re not tied to the Bush administration’s policies, which were also wrong,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) told BuzzFeed. “We are a reflection of what grassroots Republicans believe.”
When it comes to national security and civil liberties, the debate in Washington increasingly resembles not the Bush era but the Clinton era that preceded it. In his speech last month at National Defense University, Obama said, “The scale of this [terror] threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” Americans agree. According to Gallup, Americans are about as likely to believe someone in their family will be a victim of terrorism as they were in the mid-1990s. An April CNN poll (PDF) found that Americans are even less willing to compromise civil liberties in the anti-terror fight than they were in 1996.
In the 1990s, the civil-liberties debate did not pit Democrats versus Republicans as much as insiders versus outsiders. In 1996, following the first World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, the Clinton administration supported legislation permitting greater wiretapping without a warrant and allowing the FBI to review certain consumer reports. The bill enjoyed bipartisan establishment support. Its Senate sponsor was Bob Dole, Clinton’s presidential opponent that fall. But to the dismay of Democratic and Republican leaders, a coalition that included the American Civil Liberties Union and liberal Manhattan Rep. Jerry Nadler on the one hand and the Gun Owners of America and Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who was close to the militia movement, on the other, managed to gut the bill in the House.
After being crushed for close to a decade by 9/11, that left-right civil libertarian alliance is back. In both parties, it enjoys more grassroots support than it does in Washington, and that support will likely grow until the United States faces some new, frightening foreign threat. Indeed, it’s possible that for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, this left-right, post–war on terror coalition will cause the White House more trouble than will the GOP’s fading McCain-Graham wing. And that, as perhaps even Barack Obama recognizes, is a very good thing.