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Paris Attacks Bring Domestic Surveillance Into Presidential Race

A National Security Agency data center in Bluffdale, Utah.
Rick Bowmer

Until this week, presidential candidates have mostly stayed away from discussing the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. That's quickly changing.

The Paris attacks have reframed the debate between electronic privacy and national security, and also brought that debate into the Republican primary.

Speaking to MSNBC this week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called for the repeal of one of the key reforms to happen in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations. "I think we need to restore the metadata program," Bush told Morning Joe. "Which was part of the Patriot Act, and it expires in the next few months. I think that was a useful tool to keep us safe."

Bush was talking about an NSA program that sucks up and stores millions of phone records every day. This year, Congress passed — and President Obama signed — a law that will take the data out of the government's hands later this month.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio thinks that was a mistake, and said so at the time.

On Monday, Rubio told a Wall Street Journal forum the vote should now be a key issue in the Republican primary. "At least two of my colleagues in the Senate aspiring to the presidency — Sen. Cruz in particular — have voted to weaken the U.S. intelligence programs," Rubio said. "And the weakening of our intelligence capabilities leaves America vulnerable."

Indeed, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz played a key role in the debate over the metadata changes. "This legislation protects the constitutional rights of privacy under the Fourth Amendment, while maintaining important tools to protect national security and law enforcement," Cruz said on the Senate floor at the time.

In the immediate aftermath of episodes like the Paris attacks, it's completely inevitable that at least some folks are going to call for far greater surveillance authorities.

Just to be clear, the data will still be collected, but as of Nov. 29, the phone companies hold onto the information until a judge approves individual requests.

"The same information is in the same lockbox. Now the government has to get an extra key to open that lockbox," explained Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University.

Vladeck, who edits a blog about national security, isn't surprised domestic surveillance is becoming a campaign trail topic. "I think it was inevitable that at some point the Republican candidates were going to realize that surveillance was a potential wedge issue," he said.

On top of that, the law professor argued viewpoints naturally shift after attacks like Paris. "You know, it's easy when we're years away from particularly serious incidents, to look at the Snowden disclosures, and to look at the need for tighter reform of what the government is doing," said Vladeck. "In the immediate aftermath of episodes like the Paris attacks, it's completely inevitable that at least some folks are going to call for far greater surveillance authorities."

This summer, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dismissed worries about terrorism during a marathon floor speech. "Some people are so fearful. They're like — how could we get terrorists? We'll be overrun with terrorists, and ISIS will be in every drugstore and in every house in America if we don't get rid of the Constitution, if we don't let the Fourth Amendment lapse."

This week, Paul is much more subdued on the balance between civil liberties and security.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020 presidential campaign and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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