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NSA leak splits a GOP torn between national security and limited government

We do not know much about Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old National Security Agency contractor now hunkered down somewhere in Hong Kong after spilling the beans on U.S. surveillance of the Internet and private cell phone calls.

We know Snowden never finished high school and dropped out of the Army, but still earned $122,000 a year, had access to America’s biggest secrets, and has been dating a “performance artist.” Three good arguments in favor of a technical education.

We also know that Snowden wrote two checks totaling $500 to Ron Paul’s 2012 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

Campaign contributions aren’t necessarily a tattoo of one’s political ideology, but they at least raise the possibility that some conservatives have found their answer to Daniel Ellsberg, who 42 years ago leaked a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times.

Ellsberg, by the way, thinks Snowden’s leak is grander, and more important. As do many Democrats.

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But it is among Republicans that Snowden’s self-proclaimed act of civil disobedience has resonated, splitting a party whose two pillars are national security and limited government.

Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has defended NSA collection of cell phone and Internet data as within the parameters of post-9/11 legislation passed by Congress to combat terrorism.

“The whole scenario sounds bad when you read it in the papers,” Chambliss admitted to the Atlanta Rotary Club this week. But it’s necessary to catch the “bad guys,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson likewise spoke up for security practices that have apparently spanned the Bush and Obama administrations, comparing them to the “threading of the needle.”

“There may be, time to time, a mistake made, but you’re better off to try and find that sweet spot to protect the American people, than to have us vulnerable every single day to attacks like what happened on 9/11,” he said.

Neither senator has offered a characterization of Snowden, but others have. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called him a “traitor” who has put Americans at risk. Erick Erickson, the Atlanta-based editor of Redstate.com, pilloried Snowden for fleeing “to the communists.”

Yet Paul, the former Texas congressman and recipient of Snowden’s campaign cash, called the former analyst – he was officially fired this week – “heroic.”

Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone is ready to break out the confetti. “I’d throw a party for him. I’d congratulate him,” he said this week. “I think this young man showed a lot of courage, and a lot of guts and grit.”

The split between defense and “liberty” Republicans extends down to the grassroots. Take the 11th Congressional District, which extends from Atlanta, through Cobb and into Cherokee and Bartow counties.

The northwest district includes Dobbins Air Reserve Base and the Lockheed-Martin plant in Marietta, and has often been considered Georgia’s national security seat in Congress.

The seat is held by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, who is now running for the U.S. Senate. Four Republicans are in the contest to replace him: state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, former Congressman Bob Barr,

Marietta businesswoman Tricia Pridemore, and state Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

“You’ve got to ask, is he a traitor or is he a patriot?” said Loudermilk, who answered his own question. He compared Snowden to this country’s Founding Fathers.

“They met the definition of both. [Snowden] is kind of in that position. Has he violated the laws of the United States? Has he divulged secrets? Yeah, but the secrets he divulged are activities that the government should not be doing,” said Loudermilk, an Air Force veteran who monitored snooping U.S. satellites over the Soviet Union and China in the 1990s.

Loudermilk declared the collection of data – and more importantly, the storage of that information – as “chilling.” He invoked George Orwell’s book, “1984.” Which Amazon.com reports is selling very well this week.

Barr wasn’t ready to pass judgment on Snowden. “That’ll take care of itself. It’s not, did one man violate the law, but did the U.S. government violate the law?” said 2008 Libertarian presidential candidate, who is again running as a Republican.

But Barr declared Chambliss’ and Isakson’s assertions that all is going according to plan to be “either naïve or deliberately ignorant of what’s going on here.”

Barr concedes that he voted for the Patriot Act of 2001, the source of the NSA’s snooping authority, but said he ”very quickly realized its powers were being abused by the government.” He singled out the NSA’s authority to clandestine examination of “business records” – which the agency has interpreted to mean virtually all records.

Pridemore, likewise avoided mention of Snowden. But she may have her doubts. “Our government clearly has the capacity to collect personal data on its citizens, but these revelations bring into question whether they have the faculty to safeguard the data and who has access to it,” she said.

Lindsey expressed the strongest distaste for the security breach. He has no problems with a review of judicial oversight and other safeguards. Snowden is another matter.

“He is a criminal whose actions potentially imperil every American citizen and should be hunted down, prosecuted, and, if found guilty, punished to the fullest extent of the law,” said Lindsey, an attorney.

Snowden had other avenues if he objected to U.S. policy, Lindsey argued. “There is no evidence that he attempted to pursue any of those before he undertook his public actions.”

In other words, scratch one vote for enlarging the Hall of the Founding Fathers.

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