All the president’s spies: Which candidates back the NSA

Here's what the presidential candidates have to say about NSA spying, the USA Freedom Act, and government surveillance

All the president’s spies: Which candidates back the NSA
Reuters/Randall Hill

National security, and the role that government surveillance plays in it, has been one of the hot-button issues of this presidential campaign.

The USA Freedom Act -- which was passed last June with overwhelming bipartisan support -- may have ended the NSA's mass collection of American's phone records, but telecom companies will continue to amass your phone data. The only difference is now the NSA must go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court for permission to gain access. (Documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that same secret court gave the NSA permission to indiscriminately collect Americans' phone records in the first place.)

Other spying programs with even greater implications for privacy survive and thrive in the NSA's sprawling surveillance system

Regardless, many presidential candidates are falling over themselves to denounce the "weakening" of intelligence capabilities and promise they will repair the damage and keep the country safe. Here's how the candidates stack up.

Donald Trump

Trump shoots from the hip, whether it's calling for the Internet to be shut down or for Muslims to be registered. But when it comes to government surveillance, his views are in line with that of many GOP rivals, although his assertions are perhaps more colorful.

"I assume when I pick up my telephone people are listening to my conversations anyway, if you want to know the truth," he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Apparently that fact doesn't bother him, because Trump says he would be "fine" with restoring provisions of the Patriot Act to allow the NSA to once again collect American phone metadata in bulk.

This might seem surprising in a candidate who has been riding a wave of mistrust of government, but Trump says "when you have the world looking at us and would like to destroy us as quickly as possible, I err on the side of security."

Jeb Bush

On the topic of surveillance, The Donald is trumped by Bush, who is something of an NSA junkie. Bush not only advocates tirelessly for the NSA on the campaign trail and defends its mass surveillance program, he would like to hand the agency even more power. "I think the balance [between civil liberties and security] has actually gone the wrong way," he said. 

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 showed the NSA has "broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008." But Bush maintains: "There's not a shred of evidence that anybody's civil liberties have been violated by it -- not a shred."

Ted Cruz

Bush has repeatedly slammed Cruz for his opposition to the bulk collection of phone metadata. The Texas senator was a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act and remains its lone defender among GOP candidates since Rand Paul suspended his campaign.

Cruz has denounced "hoarding tens of billions of records of ordinary Americans," noting that it didn't prevent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Boston, and elsewhere.

When the focus of law enforcement and national security is on ordinary citizens rather than targeting the bad guy, we miss the bad guys while violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. Instead, the bulk data program was emblematic of the bureaucratic tendency to gather more not better information, which gives government tremendous opportunity for abuse.

However, constant sparring with Marco Rubio has led Cruz to take a harder line on Snowden, who provoked the move for restraints on domestic surveillance in the first place. While Cruz lauded Snowden in 2013 for doing "a considerable public service by bringing it to light," he has since pivoted and issued a statement, saying, "​It is now clear that Snowden is a traitor, and he should be tried for treason."

Jesselyn Radack, the attorney who represents Snowden, found it "sad that Cruz chose to score political points by bashing a whistleblower ... while at the same time Cruz regularly and vigorously defends his 'yea' vote for USA Freedom Act, a reform that only happened because Snowden had the courage to come forward."

Marco Rubio

Rubio, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and voted against the USA Freedom Act, has positioned himself as the national security candidate. Government surveillance has a prominent place in his attacks on Cruz; Rubio repeatedly accuses Cruz of weakening the intelligence community and laments the loss of the metadata program as "a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal."

"If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-intelligence law [the USA Freedom Act] that was passed with the help of some Republicans now running for president," Rubio said in a national security speech.

In turn, Cruz accuses Rubio of mischaracterizing the USA Freedom Act for political gain and says the bill actually gives the government broader authority to target and monitor terrorists, their cellphones, and their emails.

What Rubio fails to mention when demonizing the USA Freedom Act is that many of his biggest advocates in Congress were also outspoken supporters of that very bill. Of Republican lawmakers in Congress who have endorsed Rubio, only one of the 21 representatives who was present for the vote opposed the Act, and only two of the 24 senators who back Rubio opposed the bill.

John Kasich

While the feud between Rubio and Cruz blazes hot, Ohio Governor Kasich -- like Goldilocks -- is looking for a "just right" policy position. "I think the porridge [needs to be] the right temperature, not too hot and not too cold," he told New Hampshire voters about the balance between civil liberties and national security.

But the details of that balance are a bit fuzzy. When asked about the USA Freedom Act, by radio host Hewitt, Kasich said:

Well, I don't know what you mean about this Freedom Act. Look, you know, conservatives are in general very distrustful for government, as they should be.... But I think there's a balance between good intelligence and the need to protect Americans from what can become an aggressive government somewhere down the road. …I'm not giving carte blanche to anybody in the federal government. There has to be rules, restrictions and regulations that restrain them.

However, at a Republican debate in December, where government surveillance was discussed, Kasich not only sided with Rubio, he went even further and called out encryption as a major problem, saying, "Congress has got to deal with [encryption] and so does the president to keep us safe." 

Hillary Clinton

Clinton is another presidential candidate trying to find that "just right" balance between civil liberties and security --  to the point of keeping people guessing about her stand on NSA surveillance. 

When interviewed last year by Re/code's Kara Swisher, Clinton said of government surveillance:

Well, I think the NSA needs to be more transparent about what it is doing, sharing with the American people, which it wasn't…So when you say, 'Would you throttle it back?' Well, the NSA has to act lawfully. And we as a country have to decide what the rules are. And then we have to make it absolutely clear that we're going to hold them accountable.

When pressed on whether she thought the NSA had too much spying power, Clinton again evaded staking out a position. "Well yeah, but how much is too much? And how much is not enough? That's the hard part.... I resist saying it has to be this or that. I want us to come to a better balance."

When asked in the first Democratic debate whether she regretted voting for the Patriot Act in 2001 and its renewal in 2006, the former senator insisted the bill was necessary to ensure security in the aftermath of 9/11 and did not answer directly when asked if she would end NSA spying.

Bernie Sanders

By contrast, the senator from Vermont voted against the Patriot Act, and in the first debate said he would "absolutely" end the NSA's sweeping surveillance powers. "Yes, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism, but there are ways to do that without impinging on our constitutional rights and our privacy rights," he said, without providing details.

In an opinion piece penned for Time last spring, when the USA Freedom Act was being debated, Sanders wrote:

Do we really want to live in a country where the NSA gathers data on virtually every single phone call in the United States -- including as many as 5 billion cellphone records per day? I don't. Do we really want our government to collect our emails, see our text messages, know everyone's Internet browsing history, monitor bank and credit card transactions, keep tabs on people's social networks? I don't. Unfortunately, this sort of Orwellian surveillance, conducted under provisions of the Patriot Act, invades the privacy of millions of law-abiding Americans.

Sanders voted against the USA Freedom Act, on the grounds that it did not go far enough, while Clinton endorsed the bill.

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