House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi defended the programs' legality and said she wants Edward Snowden prosecuted for leaking details of the secret operations.
Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, accused Snowden of treason and defended false testimony given to her committee by the director of national intelligence, who in March had denied the programs' existence.
With some exceptions, progressive lawmakers and the liberal commentariat have been passive and acquiescent toward the secret spying programs.
When libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation two weeks ago to curb the surveillance powers, he had no co-sponsors. When he held a news conference last week to unveil a lawsuit claiming the surveillance is unconstitutional, five members of Congress joined him all Republicans.
I kept looking for liberal dissent and then, on Wednesday morning, the news wires reported that a group called Voice of Resistance was meeting outside the Capitol, where demonstrators would proclaim Snowden a hero.
I arrived at the appointed place and time but found no protest. Instead, there were six journalists and a lone demonstrator, who told me the group was actually a right-wing outfit. "The others are parking the car," he explained.
Polling last week by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center produced discouraging evidence that Democrats have shed their suspicion of government overreach now that one of their own is in charge. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats say that terrorism investigations should trump privacy as the government's main concern, compared with 51 percent in 2006, when the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program had come to light. Then, 37 percent of Democrats found the NSA's actions acceptable.
Certainly, there are differences between now and then. Today, the program operates under court supervision and has at least the veneer of congressional approval (the administration circumvents the law's requirement that only "relevant" records can be collected by claiming that all phone records of all Americans are relevant). And it remains to be seen whether Snowden is a true whistleblower or somebody who means his country harm.
Yet it is jarring to see the left so compliant now that the surveillance has been sanctioned by a Democratic president. Even if the programs ultimately prove defensible, isn't it worth finding out what they really are, before liberals accept a suspension of civil liberties they may come to regret?
Those who should be overseeing the program are instead defending it with a just-trust-me logic. Feinstein declared that "these programs are within the law." The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland promised that "we're not violating any constitutional rights."
There are a few Democrats who have upheld the party's tradition of championing civil liberties such as Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), who has devised a bill with conservative Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to curtail the program, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced legislation requiring more disclosure of secret court rulings.
But the Conyers bill is likely to go nowhere in the House, and Harry Reid said only he would look at the Merkley proposal.
If he does, he'll find that they're doing what progressives should do: protecting the people from a too-secretive government.