It’s been about a week since the Obama White House sketched out sweeping changes to U.S. surveillance policy, including an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection. For the most part, the political fight that often hangs over these questions related to national security has been extremely muted.
That may not last.
For the most part, both parties seemed pleased with President Obama’s move. Democrats, many of whom have never been altogether comfortable with the controversial surveillance program, offered their quick endorsement. Congressional Republicans were largely on board, too, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) actually trying to claim credit for the White House’s position.
On the Sunday shows yesterday, viewers saw Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, and Gen. Michael Hayden, a former NSA director, all offer support for Obama’s proposed reforms.
But there are notable exceptions. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told the Tampa Bay Times last week that public fears about NSA bulk-data collection is the result of “paranoia.”
The Florida Republican and Senate Intelligence Committee member said: “There is no evidence that these programs have been systematically abused. And there are significant safeguards built in. You can’t just go after someone’s metadata. You have access to it, but you can only truly use it and gain access to a phone bill if they go through a judge. Then what you’re getting is a phone bill and the information contained therein. So really, the debate is why are they collecting it in the first place?“Well, because you want to have quick access. Understand that when you’re dealing in the terrorist realm, as opposed to the law enforcement realm, sometimes you need to move quickly to prevent something. If it’s found that any individual is going after these records outside of the court, that person should be prosecuted and put in jail. But if you wipe out the program and we have the ability to deduce an attack is being planned … and we hamstring ourselves, I think that could one day lead to horrifying consequences.”
“We cannot unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence-gathering capabilities,” Rubio added. “It makes the country less safe.”
The politics of this, in other words, are about to get more interesting.
Last week, it looked like a rough consensus was emerging, with the White House and Congress both on board with NSA reforms, including the end to the “metadata” program under the PATRIOT Act’s Section 215.
But Rubio offers a reminder that the consensus won’t be overly broad – there are likely to be conservative hawks who speak up in support of NSA spying, even if it means keeping these broad surveillance powers in President Obama’s hands.
When it comes to Republican primaries, many GOP candidates are already hearing applause when they talk about NSA surveillance as an example of “big government” going too far. Rubio and his allies are taking an interesting electoral risk by arguing the opposite.