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PRISM -  Security versus Liberty

June 11, 2013

Big Brother Really is Watching

Twelve years after the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001, we are still dealing with the fallout.

Twenty-nine-year-old Edward Snowden is now the central figure in what has become a renewed debate over security versus civil liberties in the age of terror. Snowden has owned up to being the person who leaked details about secret National Security Agency surveillance programs that sifted through endless phone records and Internet communications, including those of ordinary Americans. The stories appeared in the British newspaper, The Guardian, and in the Washington Post.

Snowden will be a hero to some and a traitor to others. Civil liberties groups were outraged with the disclosures about the secret NSA surveillance programs because they seem to cast, in their view, such a wide net without enough safeguards to protect the public at large. But security-first types will no doubt focus on Snowden now as the real threat to democracy and will demand prosecution and punishment.

Political Battle Lines Forming

Political battle lines are already forming over the NSA surveillance revelations, with a familiar libertarian twist that brings together some liberal Democrats and a handful of conservative Republicans. Those who think the government has too much power in this area include some familiar libertarian voices like Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul is eyeing a 2016 presidential run and has become the leading proponent of trying to expand Republican supporters by trying to appeal to conservatives with a libertarian bent, especially young people. Paul made a name for himself earlier this year with a Senate filibuster in opposition to the Obama administrationís drone program. Now, heís already making the cable news show rounds on the NSA controversy.

But donít forget that congressional majorities have backed the NSA surveillance programs as a necessary tool in the war on terrorism, and I noted a bipartisan hesitation to condemn the surveillance efforts in the wake of the revelations. I think the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon served to remind the public that the terrorist threat persists, and Iím still trying to get a handle on where the public comes down on the whole question of security versus privacy.

Civil liberties advocates had their moment last week to complain about the NSA disclosures, but I still think a sizeable ďsilent majorityĒ of Americans is probably willing to accept some of the intrusions as a necessary price to pay to keep the country safe.

Obama Remains in the Hot Seat

The NSA story helped to keep the Obama administration on the defensive, coming as it did on the heels of the story about abuses by the IRS tax agency, lingering questions about the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya last September and the controversy about the government secretly accessing phone records of the Associated Press.

Some of the presidentís core supporters are no doubt disappointed that Mr. Obamaís promises on civil liberties as a presidential candidate in 2008 donít quite square with his record as president. And some are clearly upset that the Obama playbook on national security and dealing with terrorists has closely followed the one drawn up by his presidential predecessor, George W. Bush.

But from the beginning of Mr. Obamaís campaign for the White House, it was clear that he was not going to allow himself to be portrayed as weak on national security and foreign policy. The highlight was taking credit for the raid that killed Osama bin laden in 2011, which was prominently featured in the presidentís successful re-election campaign the following year.

Now the president says he welcomes a more debate on the question of security and civil liberties. Good thing because I think heís going to get it.

Republican Rumblings for 2016

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was one of the headliners at a recent Republican gathering hosted by former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Christie was joined at the event by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Romneyís vice presidential running mate last year, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the darling of libertarian-leaning Republicans.

All three men are potential presidential contenders in 2016, but of the three it seems to me that Christie is far and away the Republican most likely to appeal to non-Republicans in a presidential contest. Christieís decision to schedule a special election later this year to fill out the remaining term of the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, clearly disappointed conservatives who were looking for the bolder move of appointing a Republican for the remaining time, giving that person a leg up in any eventual election.

But it looks like the latest evidence that Christie is positioning himself as someone who could appeal to moderates from both parties, a centrist candidate who would risk the ire of the Republican right wing to make him more viable with the general election voter.

Of course the problem here is leaning too far to the middle would make Christie a target in the Republican primaries in 2016. Perhaps his best hope is splitting the conservative vote among several contenders and emerging as the favorite of mainstream Republican voters. Letís see, the last two to do that were John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

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