Politics & Policy

Christie Is Right: Rand Paul’s Fearmongering on NSA Surveillance Is ‘Baloney’

As Kentucky senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul prepares to filibuster a House bill to extend a controversial NSA counterterrorism program, one of his prospective campaign opponents, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, slammed Paul this week (without naming him) in a major speech on national security.

Christie said in his typical blunt style:

When Edward Snowden revealed our intelligence secrets to the world in 2013, civil-liberties extremists seized that moment to advance their own narrow agenda. They want you to think that there’s a government spook listening in every time you pick up the phone or Skype with your grandkids. They want you to think of our intelligence community as the bad guys, straight out of The Bourne Identity or a Hollywood thriller, and they want you to think that if we weakened our capabilities, the rest of the world would love us more. Let me be clear: All these fears are baloney.

“Let’s be clear,” Christie added. “All these fears are exaggerated and ridiculous. When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy, and we should not be listening to people like Edward Snowden.”

It would have been very easy for Christie to jump on the anti-NSA bandwagon by echoing Paul’s claims that the U.S. government is violating the privacy rights of Americans by spying on their phone calls through the NSA metadata program. This is an intelligence-collection program leaked by Edward Snowden that looks at phone records, but not the contents of phone calls, to establish terrorist links. This position would fit well with Christie’s populist appeal and might have given him an edge over presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who have come under fire from Senator Paul for defending the metadata program.

RELATED: Rand Paul Doubles Down on Anti-NSA Message

Unlike some members of Congress, Christie isn’t playing political games on this issue by trying to split the difference or appeal to both sides. He called it straight: Paul’s claims about the metadata program are ridiculous. I explained in a May 11, 2015, National Review article how this program is a constitutional and effective intelligence tool that has helped keep our nation safe.

“When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy.”

— Chris Christie

Defending the metadata program is difficult because the Snowden leaks have been used in fearmongering attacks against the NSA by libertarians like Paul, by liberal Democrats like Senators Ron Wyden and Patrick Leahy, and by privacy advocates and the news media. Many politicians and intelligence officials who know that this is an effective and necessary program have backed away from it because they couldn’t handle the political heat.

If the Senate does not extend the metadata program by June 1, it expires. Although Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and a handful of Senate Republicans have argued for a “clean” reauthorization, owing to the growing threat to the U.S. homeland from homegrown terrorists inspired by ISIS, anti-NSA hysteria has done so much damage that the only option for continuing this program is the USA Freedom Act of 2015. This bill, which passed the House last week by a wide margin, is flawed and would enact changes that would limit the usefulness of the metadata program as a counterterrorism tool.

RELATED: NSA Data Collection: Necessary, or Unconstitutional?

McConnell opposes the bill and has proposed that the program be extended for a few days to allow more time to negotiate a compromise. However, he seems to realize he is out of options. On Tuesday he announced that he will allow a floor vote on the House bill before the Senate leaves town for its Memorial Day recess on Friday.

While I prefer McConnell’s plan for a clean extension of the metadata program, I believe that national-security-minded senators have no choice but pass the USA Freedom Act, since the alternative is the expiration of the metadata program.

RELATED: Republicans and the Patriot Act

Senate consideration of the USA Freedom Act this week is certain to be contentious, as Senator Paul has said he will do “everything humanly possible” to stop the bill, including filibustering it. Paul wants the metadata program completely shut down and will push for votes on amendments to render it useless. Paul probably hopes these theatrics will boost his presidential bid.

#related#Governor Christie, Governor Bush, and Senator Rubio deserve credit for firmly supporting the metadata program. They took a principled position that is deeply unpopular with some Republicans and resisted the temptation to exploit this issue or equivocate. They also are standing up to Senator Paul’s demagoguery and PR stunts, such as claims he made this week during a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he said the metadata program is trampling the Bill of Rights.

It is deeply unfortunate that Senator Paul is using his considerable charisma to promote his erroneous view of the NSA metadata program. He is misleading many Americans and will mislead more if he tries to filibuster the USA Freedom Act this week. That’s why I was so pleased to hear Christie’s recent counterattack against libertarian criticisms of the metadata program. More GOP presidential candidates should speak up against Senator Paul on this issue, to help focus the national-security debate on the many real threats facing our country, not on Senator Paul’s baloney.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.

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