Jeb Bush Defends NSA Mass Surveillance as ‘Hugely Important’

“The debate has gotten off track,” the 2016 White House hopeful said during a speech in Chicago.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Detroit Economic Club February 4, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 18, 2015, 9:13 a.m.

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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