The startling revelations about the National Security Agency’s stockpiling of telephone and Internet data poses a quandary for freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). As a small government conservative, Cruz – already being bandied about as a presidential candidate in 2016 – seems torn between his support of aggressive anti-terrorist activities and outrage over what he views as wanton government overreach.
“What we have seen so far is troubling,” Cruz told The Fiscal Times after addressing the Federalist Society Tuesday morning on the topic of – what else? – the rise of an unaccountable administrative state. “It depends on what exactly the policy is. And one of the most difficult aspects of this issue of NSA seizure of phone records and Internet records is that at this point we don’t have a clear picture of what their policy is – of how broadly it’s employed and of what the constraints, judicial or otherwise, are in invading the privacy of American citizens.
“Much of the response of the Obama administration to date has essentially been, ‘Trust us,’’’ he added. “And given the pattern of misconduct we have seen with the IRS, given the pattern we have seen throughout the administration, their past actions do not engender trust.”
The response by this high-flying Lone Star State newcomer helps to explain how Washington is processing reports about the breadth and scope of NSA snooping on people living abroad, as well as U.S. citizens. Cruz worked to torpedo attempts at gun control earlier this year, saying it could lead to a national firearms registry. But he does see some value in the NSA’s incredible technological capabilities that were detailed last week to the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper by a 29-year-old government contractor named Edward Snowden.
Cruz endorses the depth of the data collection, but not its breadth.
“I think it is critical that we have the tools that are necessary to track down and stop terrorists,” he replied. “And indeed, if you look at recent instances of terrorism, we see multiple instances – whether the Boston bomber or the Fort Hood [massacre of military personnel], where the administration was well aware of the terrorists long before the act of terrorism was committed, had significant cause to investigate further, and for whatever reason dropped the ball and didn’t act to prevent actual terrorists who took the lives of innocents.
“It may well be that the administration is focusing more energy on casting the net wide and invading the privacy of law-abiding Americans, rather than targeting the bad guys – targeting actual terrorists. So I think we need additional clarity and additional scrutiny to understand the parameter of what the NSA is doing and what the protections are of our rights.”
This is a pivotal nuance, key for understanding how the NSA disclosures could play among voters who simultaneously desire protection from attacks such as 9/11 while maintaining a degree of privacy. Other government officials, including Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), have been much more blunt in their defense of surveillance programs that allegedly thwarted terrorist plots. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement last week, “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”
Clapper, of course, lost considerable credibility after denying to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in testimony three months ago that the NSA collects any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank noted Tuesday.
Coming on the heels of the controversies over the Internal Revenue Service targeting of the Tea Party, and the Justice Department’s clandestine acquisition of reporters’ telephone records, the NSA revelations fit nicely into the story of the federal government and its scores of agencies and contractors running amok.
But in advancing this narrative about Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches and seizures, the highly ambitious and lawyerly Cruz must thread the needle between endorsing NSA’s overarching mission and critiquing the Obama administration’s overall performance.
“So the IRS scandal fits into a broader pattern that we have seen from this administration of, number one, willingness to use the machinery of the federal government to target those who are perceived to be political enemies and, number, two, an unfortunate willingness to mislead and be less than honest with the American people,” the Tea Party favorite explained.
“Both of those go straight to the question of trust and credibility,” he noted. “And both of those create an environment in which the revelations about the NSA practices are understandably questioned far more vigorously. Because if the administration has demonstrated it is willing to abuse its power – to abuse the information it has on private citizens – the question naturally arises, ‘Whatever information, whatever power are you willing to abuse?’ And I think that’s a question that needs to be asked and examined very closely.”
Cruz opened his talk with a quip well received by a group that suspects the scandals at the IRS and Justice Department represent just the tip of the iceberg of wrongdoing by government agencies.
“Unfortunately having come from Capitol Hill I’m obliged to start by my letting everyone know that by virtue of being here, tomorrow morning each of you is going to be audited by the IRS,” Cruz said. “But I appreciate your courage.”
Josh Boak of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.