Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday offered a vocal defense of the National Security Agency’s mass collection of U.S. phone call data, saying the program is “hugely important” to keeping Americans safe from terrorists.
During a foreign policy speech in Chicago, the likely Republican candidate for president said the mass surveillance is an essential ingredient in the fight against those seeking to do harm to the United States.
“That requires responsible intelligence-gathering and analysis, including the NSA metadata program, which contributes to awareness of potential terrorist cells and interdiction efforts on a global scale,” Bush said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand [how] the debate has gotten off track, where we’re not understanding and protecting — we do protect our civil liberties, but this is a hugely important program to use these technologies to keep us safe”
Bush has been largely quiet about government surveillance since the Edward Snowden disclosures began in 2013, and he has not commented in detail about the issue since launching a presidential exploratory committee late last year. The new remarks align Bush closely with Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican and likely 2016 hopeful, and open up considerable distance between Bush and a host of other suspected GOP contenders.
Last month, Rubio called for a permanent extension of the provisions of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act that provide the legal authority for the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records.
But other Republicans with an eye on the White House have staked out notably divergent policy positions on government surveillance.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has called for the end of the NSA’s domestic dragnet surveillance program and has indicated he will try to block reauthorization of those core provisions of the Patriot Act later this year. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, meanwhile, was one of just four Republicans to join with Democrats last year in backing the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would have essentially ended the bulk metadata program. The measure fell two votes short of advancing, failing to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.
Bush’s position underscores a growing division within the Republican Party between foreign policy hawks and libertarian-minded conservatives who bristle at the idea of government prying into the private lives of citizens. It is sure to rankle the tea-party wing of the GOP, which has expressed continued outrage at the scope of the surveillance programs revealed in the Snowden files.
Bush’s comments are also timely, given that Congress must act in some fashion before those core sections of the Patriot Act sunset on June 1 of this year. Although not directed specifically to reform efforts on Capitol Hill, Bush’s speech suggests he would oppose any effort to tinker or limit the NSA’s current spying authority.
Wednesday’s speech also appears to leave little daylight between Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has defended government spying by instructing its critics to sit down with the families of victims lost in the September 11, 2001 attacks, and reevaluate their stance. Christie is a potential threat to Bush in shoring up support among the GOP’s establishment base.
Privacy advocates have repeatedly insisted that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata — the numbers, time-stamps, and location of a call but not its actual content — has no track record of thwarting terrorist plots or keeping Americans safe. President Obama has pushed for a transition to end the program but has said he will only do so with appropriate legislation from Congress.
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