The cognitive dissonance of conservative NSA hawks, in 1 telling episode

The U.S. was caught spying on Congress and American Jewish groups. How is Lindsey Graham not enraged?

Lindsey Graham believes that government surveillance is used only for specific groups of people.
(Image credit: Pacific Press/Corbis)

Lindsey Graham is confident that government surveillance only applies to terrorists.

"I don't think you're talking to the terrorists," the South Carolina senator and erstwhile presidential candidate told a television interviewer. "I know you're not. I know I'm not. So we don't have anything to worry about."

Graham has also called the nuclear deal with Iran a "death sentence for Israel" and blamed it for many of the problems in the world.

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But one wonders if Graham, for all his bravado and certitude, didn't experience at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance when he read reports that conversations about the Iran deal between members of Congress and American Jewish groups were recorded in U.S. surveillance of the Israeli government.

"That raised fears — an 'Oh-s — moment,' one senior U.S. official said — that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress," according to The Wall Street Journal.

You don't say?

No, it's not exactly the same thing as the bulk metadata collection that has been the subject of heated debate and divided the Republican presidential field.

But it does demonstrate that untrammeled surveillance powers give political authorities a lot of discretion, and with that discretion exists the potential for abuse. President Obama struck an apologetic tone when it came to spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande, but apparently not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If you don't trust this president to make those judgment calls, then maybe the answer isn't to elect a different president. Perhaps the answer is to limit this presidential power in the first place.

Too many observers who lack faith in this president never discuss this problem as they agitate for piling executive power on top of executive power in order to keep the country safe. Vast executive power means potentially a lot of power in the hands of public figures who don't like you.

Graham, for all his influence in the Senate and ubiquity on the Sunday morning television talk shows, won't ever be president of the United States. But there is considerable overlap between his views and those of more viable Republican presidential candidates, like Marco Rubio, who expresses them more diplomatically.

The Obama administration reportedly "believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter" Netanyahu's opposition to the nuclear deal. Is that what pro-Israel defenders of the NSA bargained for? Do they agree with the president that this was a "compelling national security purpose?"

One could argue that the NSA was merely trying to keep up with what Israel found out about the deal through its own spying operations. But you are still left with the uncomfortable eavesdropping on American congressmen and senators.

Even if you conclude the surveillance was justified — Rubio, for example, was cautious in his public response — it is obviously simplistic to say that the NSA only listens to confirmed or suspected terrorists.

The surveillance is broader than that and can easily move from the essential to the debatable to things most Americans might find objectionable if they ever found out about it. That's why surveillance, like all government powers, should be subject to checks and balances rather than left to executive whim.

Otherwise we may end up with stepped up surveillance of Congress, giving us more executive whim and fewer checks and balances.

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