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At liberal gathering, Howard Dean prods Obama to explain spying

SAN JOSE -- Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said Wednesday that President Obama needs to justify his administration's surveillance policies to the American people.

“I think the American people are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for safety, but I think the president has to essentially ask our permission,” he said in an interview at a gathering here of liberal bloggers and activists.

“The reason this country works is because we are governed with the consent of the governed. ... I think the American people support the president, but he’s got to go on television and explain what this program is, why he thinks we need it, and what it's accomplished.”

The former Vermont governor was addressing revelations that the federal government secretly collected Americans’ phone and email records in its anti-terrorism efforts. The Obama administration and some political leaders on both sides of the aisle have said the previously covert effort does not violate citizens’ constitutional protections, but others have argued that the actions infringe on Americans’ privacy and due-process rights.

Dean made the remarks after addressing the kickoff party for the Netroots Nation gathering at the Tech Museum of Innovation, where hundreds of attendees sipped Stella Artois and nibbled cheese and warm artichoke dip.

The party was a bit of a homecoming for many in attendance -- it marked a decade since the beginning of Dean’s presidential bid, which was the first to systematically organize and raise money online. Attendees addressed Dean as “Mr. President” and asked when he was running for office again (he demurred). Courage Campaign leader Rick Jacobs, who quit his job in 2003 to serve as Dean’s California campaign manager, stripped off his sweatshirt to reveal a faded “Howard Dean for America” T-shirt.

The 3,000 people who have registered for the annual gathering will attend 80 panels, 40 training stations and many parties. In some ways, the gathering, which is taking place in California for the first time, is a celebration of policy changes championed by liberals, such as the military withdrawal from Iraq and increased rights for gays and lesbians. Silicon Valley created many of the tools activists have used in recent years to amplify their impact on the political process.

But it comes amid an uncertain time for the activists, many of whom were once reliable members of Obama’s base. The skepticism is reflected in the panels planned here through Saturday, about topics such as the use of drones, and clashes between Democrats over overhauling Social Security.

Sentiments are expected to be most intense over the administration’s surveillance policies and prior disappointments with Obama, including his failure to make good on a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

“I think being an ally means that you hold people accountable for what they say and what they do, in the same way you would hold a family member accountable if they were to break a promise,” said Sommer Foster, a 36-year-old pro-gay-marriage activist and blogger from Detroit.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter/@latseema

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