The Corner

National Security & Defense

A Year of Terror Hasn’t Made CPACers Warm to the NSA

The attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference skew much younger and more libertarian than the Republican party as a whole, but it’s still striking that about two-thirds of participants in the conference’s straw poll oppose the National Security Agency’s use of telephone metadata to investigate terrorism.

After a year that has seen Americans beheaded by jihadists, huge swathes of Iraq and Syria taken over by the Islamic State, and cartoonists gunned down in European capitals, you might think that Republicans would have gotten more hawkish on the NSA issue, but the CPAC poll, at the very least, provides no indication they have. 

The poll asked participants the following: “Do you support or oppose the collection of phone data on U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency for the purpose of preventing terrorist attacks and tracking those who may have links to terrorism?” Sixty-five percent of those polled said they opposed such a program, while just 32 percent said they were for it.

Last year, the straw poll found even stronger opposition to NSA programs — 78 percent disapproval — but as I noted at the time, was basically push-polling for the anti-NSA position. Dropping, e.g., the references to “wire-tapping” presumably explains the 13-point drop in opposition. The 2015 question was accurately worded but, by including specifying that the NSA programs are targeted at terror, could have made respondents much more favorable to the NSA — and yet it didn’t.

That response is a little more surprising when you consider that the 2016 candidates in attendance packed their speeches with hawkish, red-meat criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy and promises to restore America’s standing in the world. Even Senator Rand Paul, who’s at times tried to build a more restrained foreign policy vision and heavily criticized government surveillance programs, was heavy on the foreign-policy talk and didn’t spend much time hitting the NSA. That said, there obviously was a strong contingent of CPAC attendees who prioritize foreign policy: 29 percent of straw-poll respondents said that “foreign policy or international issues” was the most important criterion when picking a presidential candidate (“economic issues” won, with 52 percent).

Earlier at the conference, a panel involving libertarian-minded judge Andrew Napolitano and former NSA head Michael Hayden produced some contentious moments: Hayden’s declaration that he’s an “unrelenting libertarian” earned him some boos, some cheers, and shouts of “no you’re not!”

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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