Republicans are already two debates deep into the 2016 primary field, and though candidates have staked out a number of positions on foreign and domestic policy, many are still elusive on some of the most rapidly growing threats at home and abroad — surveillance and cybersecurity.
Wonks at the national security law and policy forum Just Security agree, that’s why they posted “Six National Security Questions Presidential Candidates Should Have to Answer,” this week — an effort aimed at sparking in-depth debate about national security in 2016, which has thus far “been reduced not only to generalized sound bites, but to preposterous caricatures of complex and multifaceted legal and policy issues,” according to Steve Vladeck, co-editor-in-chief.
So far, Vladeck contends, candidates prefer “to distance themselves from their competitors on more politically sexy topics, like who will defund Planned Parenthood faster, or whose mom will look better on the $10 bill.”
Included in those questions are three focused more narrowly on surveillance and cybersecurity — issues that have grown in relevance since the leak of massive, and in some cases unconstitutional, National Security Agency surveillance programs, and hacks of crucial government data related to cybersecurity, like at the Office of Personnel Management.
As the post points out, many candidates on the crowded GOP field have yet to lay any foundation within their platform on any of those issues, but others have — particularly those with a tech background or in Congress, where new bills on surveillance, data and cyber policy pop up almost daily.
The first question asks candidates to weigh in on the most high profile example of such legislation — the USA Freedom Act, passed earlier this summer to shut down NSA’s collection of virtually all Americans’ landline telephone records, and replace it with a system in which telephone providers store the records and mandate NSA get a court order to search for specific metadata.
“In your view, does the USA Freedom Act strike the right balance between the government’s need to engage in terrorism-related foreign intelligence surveillance and privacy and civil liberties considerations? With section 702 set to sunset in December 2017, what conditions, if any, would you seek to place on congressional reauthorization of that authority? As president, what other reforms — either expanding or constraining the government’s surveillance authorities — would you pursue?”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was the only candidate to vote for passage of the Freedom Act, and said in June the bill “strikes the right balance between protecting our privacy rights and our national security interests.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham abstained from voting over concerns the bill threatened the privacy of Americans’ phone records, now “in the hands of the phone company with hundreds of people available to look at the records versus 20 or 30 people in the government.”
“So I think the [metadata] program has been undermined in terms of the Freedom Act, and quite frankly, we’ve told the enemy so much about it, I’m not sure it works anymore,” Graham said after the vote.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio voted against the bill, saying it would “absolutely” restrain NSA’s ability to track terrorists.
“I’m always sensitive to protecting people’s privacy expectations and privacy rights, but I’m also concerned about eroding our capability to gather actionable intelligence that allows us to prevent attacks and take on our enemies,” Rubio, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last year.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul voted nay over concerns the bill didn’t go far enough in protecting civil liberties.
“I have fought for several years now to end the illegal spying of the NSA on ordinary Americans,” Paul said before stalling the chamber into shutting down the program at the end of May. “The callous use of general warrants and the disregard for the Bill of Rights must end.”
Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent a portion of the first debate disagreeing over the move, with Christie asserting the NSA needs the program to find probable cause for surveilling terrorist suspects.
“You know, when you’re sitting in a subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that,” Christie said on Fox. “When you’re responsible for protecting the lives of the American people, then what you need to do is to make sure you use the system the way it’s supposed to work,” the governor said, adding “there’s not one step within the law that I wouldn’t take to prevent the killing of one American.”
During her tenure at HP Carly Fiorina helped then-NSA Director Michael Hayden begin building the mass surveillance apparatus that would eventually leak via a cadre of NSA whistleblowers, and served as chairman of the CIA’s advisory board — a role she described as a “privilege.”
In June Fiorina told Fox’s Andrew Napolitano she would “somewhat” dial back NSA’s surveillance powers if elected president, and cited the Freedom Act as a successful example of “dialing back” the signals intelligence agency’s scope and authority.
Fiorina went on to call the phone company storage provision a “bad idea” and the law overall a “hodgepodge that doesn’t satisfy anybody.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has expressed unwavering support for the intelligence community, and NSA in particular, since the Snowden leaks in 2013. Ahead of the vote in June, Bush said Paul was “wrong” to claim people’s rights were being violated under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
“I think we need to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and put aside who’s speaking where,” Bush said in May. “The simple fact is that it’s been an effective tool to keep us free and to keep us from being attacked by Islamic terrorists.”
In a cyber-focused policy proposal dropped last week, Bush said it was time to stop “demonizing” members of the intelligence community charged with protecting U.S. interests online, and in August, said the balance between privacy and security was shifting the “wrong way” as a result of encryption products agencies can’t get around for surveillance.
He later added there was “no evidence” to suggest Americans’ civil liberties had been violated by the Patriot Act.
None of the candidates have staked out specific positions related to Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the government to collect the content (rather than just metadata) of Americans’ online communications when they’re swept up during the surveillance of foreign targets on overseas Internet infrastructure, but one could reasonably expect many of them to fall along lines similar to Section 215.