Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is putting his weight behind controversial spying programs at the National Security Agency, setting up a battle within the Republican Party ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
In a major foreign policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday, the likely presidential candidate praised the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data, which critics call a massive invasion of privacy.
“For the life of me, I don’t understand [how] the debate has gotten off-track,” he added, while maintaining that program rules “do protect our civil liberties.”
The defense of the program puts Bush at odds with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Paul, who is expected to announce his own bid for presidency later this year, has long been a vocal critic of the NSA, and last year sued the Obama administration over the spy agency's phone records program.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who may also be eyeing a run for the White House, has also emerged as a critic of the NSA program.
Last year, Cruz co-sponsored legislation to effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone data and require the spy agency to obtain records from private phone companies after gaining a court order. That bill — the USA Freedom Act — fell two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate. Paul voted against it at the time, on the grounds that it did not go far enough to reverse the Patriot Act.
Under the program, revealed in leaks from Edward Snowden in the summer of 2013, the NSA collects phone “metadata” such as the numbers people dial and information about when their calls occurred, but not the actual content of their conversations.
Critics say the program violates Americans’ right to privacy, but defenders say it is critical to connecting the dots between terrorists.
The program “contributes to an awareness of potential terror cells and interdiction efforts on a global scale,” Bush said on Wednesday.
Bush will find support in that opinion from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another potential 2016 candidate who is often referred to as a protégé of the former governor.
Whether or not the issue heats up on the campaign trail, it is likely to emerge on Capitol Hill in the next few months, ahead of a June 1 deadline to reauthorize the law that allows the NSA to conduct the phone records program.