The Hopelessly Romantic Republican Who Wants to Rein In NSA Spying

Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who disappeared for a week to visit his Argentine lover, is trying to chip away at the modern surveillance state.

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Jun 5 2014, 5:30pm

Congressman Mark Sanford at a 2013 conservative conference in Virginia. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

It's been exactly one year now since Edward Snowden exposed the damning details of the global surveillance operations of the NSA, and US lawmakers, by and large, have yet to demonstrate any real willingness to rein in the excesses of the secretive agency. But a few legislators are working toward checking the national-security state, including Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor best known for his romantic sojourn with an Argentine journalist in 2009.

Once thought to be a surefire Republican presidential contender, Sanford's career was in serious danger after the story of his affair broke five years ago. His aides famously told inquisitive reporters that their boss was "hiking the Appalachian trail" when he was actually engaging in a rather different sort of recreational activity, an excuse that only made the incident more notorious. After stepping down from the governor's office in 2011, Sanford got engaged to the journalist—and pundits waited for him to fade into obscurity. Instead, he quickly set about finding a way back to power.

Since reclaiming his old seat in the House of Representatives last year—he reportedly asked his ex-wife to run the campaign, a bizarre offer she understandably declined—Sanford has advocated for a libertarian strain of conservatism on issues ranging from government spying to medical marijuana, offering his party a way forward at a time when its national brand might be even more toxic than his own. In particular, he's focused on chipping away at the NSA's surveillance of everyday Americans in the name of supposedly keeping them safe.

"There's something of a split between where Big Washington is on this issue and where a lot of people across the country are," Sanford told me in an interview. "There's always been tension between security and freedom going back to the Greeks and the Romans, throughout the pages of history," he added, citing Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first penned in 1776 when Enlightenment ideals were about to give way to Romanticism—a tension that has defined Sanford's public life.

"Institutional forces were somewhat freaked out by the Amash amendment and the bipartisan support it earned last year," Sanford continued. "The water seems to be rising on this fight." That amendment, which barely failed in a 205-217 vote, would have effectively rescinded the government's authority to operate phone metadata gathering schemes in the United States.

Sanford and a few other congressonal Republicans (including Michigan's Justin Amash) teamed up with Florida Democratic Representative Alan Grayson last year to advance a bill that would establish a new inspector general for the NSA to make up for the incredible failures of the agency's existing in-house watchdog, which has zero credibility because it is a creature of NSA leadership.

"When we looked at the chain-of-command in the NSA, it was an outlier relative to other intelligence-gathering entities," Sanford told me, before acknowledging the limits of his proposal, a new, expanded version of which was added as an amendment to the 2014–2015 intelligence authorization bill by Democratic Congressman Jim Himes before it easily cleared the House of Representatives last Friday. "You wanna be careful not to overstate—I think it's another tool in the toolkit in bringing greater accountability to NSA. It's not a silver bullet." (The bill still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law, neither of which are certainties, but sources on Capitol Hill are bullish.)

Rand Paul tends to hog most of the hype as a potential libertarian savior for the modern Republican Party, but playing a role in helping to actually pass something that challenges government surveillance, even in a limited way, could provide an enormous amount of street cred for any conservative politician. On the other hand, the inspector general that the proposal calls for would be appointed by the president, limiting its potential in the eyes of some experts and reform advocates (and, one suspects, most grassroots Republican activists who are less than fond of Barack Obama).

"What's more important is actually making clear what the limits of mass surveillance ought to be and then having an inspector general enforce that on the back end," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel and deputy director of the Freedom, Security and Surveillance Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Still, it's telling that a relatively doctrinaire conservative like Sanford, who is running for re-election unopposed this fall, can lend his support to (and provide the blueprint for) a new watchdog who at least theoretically would have the power to prod the NSA into adopting less overtly Orwellian practices. The debate is moving in a healthy direction, with government spies increasingly regarded by the public as devious interlopers rather than the protective parental figures they want us to think they are. Unfortunately, people like Sanford tend to be dismissed because they lack credible presidential ambitions or because they were punchlines years ago—a testament to a political culture that emphasizes freakish celebrity rather than rewarding actual change agents. It's one thing to reject Sanford because of the betrayal and humiliation he inflicted on his ex-wife, and quite another to dismiss him because he was that guy who had sex in Buenos Aires.

"Bill Clinton is a serial sexual abuser of women, and he's gonna be the First Dude," said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist and media consultant. "This isn't Lindsay Lohan going to rehab so she can go back to jail. This is a guy who made some mistakes in life, and has rededicated himself to public service."

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