In Kansas, candidates spar over NSA


As a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo had a front-row seat to the brouhaha that erupted in Washington last year over revelations that the government was secretly collecting Americans’ data.

Todd Tiahrt, Pompeo’s challenger in the upcoming Republican primary for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, has seized on the incumbent’s proximity to the controversy _ and his voting record _ to attack him. Now Pompeo finds himself in the awkward position of defending the National Security Agency’s surveillance program while campaigning as a tea party stalwart who sympathizes with voters’ distrust of the federal government.

Tiahrt is vulnerable on the issue of privacy too. As a former congressman who also served on the intelligence committee, he voted in favor of warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s surveillance powers _ facts that the Pompeo campaign is quick to point out.

Pompeo says Tiahrt is mischaracterizing the NSA surveillance program for political gain.

“To say the U.S. government is targeting U.S. persons, to listen to their phone calls and read their emails, is just false,” he told the Wichita Eagle’s editorial board last week.

One anti-Pompeo ad, sponsored by a super political action committee called Kansans for Responsible Government, calls the National Security Agency’s massive data collection efforts “an assault on the constitution” and shows Pompeo on the floor of the House, saying, “This is precisely the way our government ought to operate.”

Tiahrt’s campaign also put out a statement noting that a coalition of privacy advocates and civil liberty groups gave Pompeo an F grade in a scorecard of Congress on the NSA issue.

The statement slammed Pompeo for his votes against two amendments that would have limited NSA activities. One would have cut funding for the NSA’s so-called “backdoor searches” that collect users’ emails, browsing and chat history without a warrant. The second amendment would have defunded the NSA’s surveillance program.

Tiahrt says Pompeo voted against “common sense” limits on NSA spying on Americans by rejecting the amendments.

Pompeo notes that he introduced his own amendment, which specifically directed the NSA to not listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails. That amendment became law.

He says he has watched the NSA operations in action and is confident the agency is subject to sufficient oversight from the Justice Department, Congress, the White House and both political parties. Members of the House Intelligence Committee also are briefed frequently and receive quarterly reports, he says.

“That’s as good as you can do from a Founding Fathers, Federalist Papers perspective on how a federal program ought to work,” he said.

Pompeo’s defense of the NSA “really does run against the whole libertarian frame of suspicion of government,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

“You do wonder on both sides if it’s just politics because they’re struggling to find differences between each other,” Loomis said.

The sparring between Pompeo and Tiahrt has drawn the attention of right-wing foreign policy professionals and government officials, including several who served in the George W. Bush administration. They wrote an open letter defending the NSA’s activities in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.

“Supporting the NSA collection programs illegally compromised by Edward Snowden is politically difficult given the media frenzy that has inaccurately portrayed these programs as domestic spying,” the letter reads. “We regret that too many politicians are taking a politically expedient position on this issue by siding with the news media on NSA programs in an effort to scare voters and win their support.”

Despite Tiahrt’s efforts to capitalize on voters’ anger over NSA spying, the issue isn’t likely to make a difference in the outcome of Kansas’ primary on Aug. 5, political scientists say.

At town hall meetings in Kansas, the agency’s surveillance activities pop up often in questions from voters concerned that the government is spying on them. But jobs, the economy, the Affordable Care Act and agriculture issues loom larger for most Kansas voters than the intrusions of the NSA.

“Look, lots of voters are concerned about the NSA, but I don’t know they would end up blaming x, y or z other than the president,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The Wichita Eagle's Fred Mann contributed to this article.