SAN JOSE—Netroots Nation hasn't been overly defined by security issues, and it hasn't centered around massive keynote speeches. The exceptions came during the Saturday lunch session, when activists grabbed Sierra Club-sponsored sandwiches and Pepsi products and watched House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi get grilled by blogger Zerlina Maxwell. She was the only member of the Democratic leadership in either house to appear at the conference.
So she got the NSA questions. They came in the form of submissions from the audience (around half the questions, supposedly, were about the scandal) but they got a response when hecklers started asking Pelosi about the story. She rushed to defend the administration from charges of Cheney-ism.
"Some of the things we insisted on when we got the majority make a completely big difference," she said. "The Bush administration—warrantless. The attorney general and the DNI, they should decide if we should go forward if some of this collection—practically employees of the president. So we passed the FISA amendments of 2008. It's important to read them."
Pelosi tried to convince the crowd that the Democrats were working toward balance on security. This was the wrong thing to say. "It’s not a balance!" said Marc Perkel, a California blogger who's called for Obama's impeachment over the NSA revelations. "It’s not constitutional! No secret laws!"
"It's so important to subject this to harsh scrutiny," said Pelosi. "You should reject any notion that President Obama's actions have anything to do with what President Bush was doing."
Meanwhile, security guards were dragging Perkel away. "Leave him alone!" shouted a few activists. "No secret courts!" yelled Perkel as he moved out of the room. "No secret laws!"
It felt like a small-scale interruption; Perkel and his co-hecklers represented maybe 0.1 percent of the crowd. But Pelosi went back to the ire well, insisting that "as far as [it goes with Edward] Snowden, you may disagree with me, but he did violate the law in terms of releasing those documents. The fact is, we have to have a balance between security and privacy."
That woke up the hecklers. Loud boos rattled around the room. "It's a bad law!" yelled one heckler. "You suck!" yelled another.
Finally, Pelosi got a kind of bailout. An activist near the front of the room yelled about security consultants. "You're absolutely right!" said Pelosi. "I'm with you, babe, all the way! If you couldn't hear her, the real problem, she said, is outsourcing our national security. I get criticized by this community a lot. [Former NSA Director Mike] O'Connell worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, came in, worked in the federal government, exalted to the positions he was, hired consultants galore, contractors galore from Booz Allen Hamilton. And now he's at Booz Allen again. This really is astounding."
In a neat twist, Pelosi had turned the conversation back to the threats of the private sector, and of Bush administration outrages. "Let's also make sure that all the things we want in any surveillance doesn't have profiling," she said. "We want our public employees to reflect the diversity of our country and be treated in a certain way." And she'd fight for that. "I'm naming names, I'm naming names."
The headline from the luncheon would inevitably read "Pelosi heckled." But she figured out quickly how to put a funnel on the anger and pour it in another direction.