Jeb Bush Is Not His Brother, But He Loves His NSA Spying Program

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Jeb Bush.Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

Former president George W. Bush said last week that he knows he’s the biggest problem for his brother’s likely presidential campaign, and for the past few months Jeb Bush has been working to distance himself from his brother’s policies. During a speech in February he declared, “I am my own man,” and last week he refused to answer questions about the last Bush administration’s foreign-policy errors, saying, “Focusing on the past is not really relevant.”

But there is one aspect of W.’s administration that he’s embracing wholeheartedly. When asked about the best part of the Obama administration in a radio interview on Tuesday, Bush immediately pointed to his support for a program implemented by his brother. “I would say the best part of the Obama administration has been his continuance of the protections of the homeland using the big metadata programs, the NSA being enhanced,” Bush told host Michael Medved. “Even though he never defends it, even though he never admits it, there has been a continuation of a very important service, which is the first obligation of our national government is to keep us safe.”

Jeb Bush did not publicly comment on government surveillance after Edward Snowden began leaking NSA documents in 2013, but he’s defended the programs several times in the past few months. In the same February speech in which Bush noted that he’s not his father or brother, he said:

These [terrorist] attacks require response on many levels, but most of all we should focus on preventing them. That requires responsible intelligence gathering and analysis, including the NSA metadata program, which contributes to awareness of potential terror cells and interdiction efforts on a global scale. For the life of me, I don’t understand the debate has gotten off track where we’re not understanding and protecting — we do protect our civil liberties but this is a hugely important program to use these technologies to keep us safe.

When radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Bush about the man who was fatally shot while trying to enter the NSA campus in Fort Meade, Maryland (possibly by accident, it was later reported), he said:

I think that this is an ongoing threat, and I hope that our counterintelligence capabilities are always vigilant. I’ve always been nervous about the attacks on the NSA, and somehow that we’re losing our freedoms by keeping the homeland safe. I think we need to be really vigilant about that.

Hewitt then asked how you balance that with the privacy concerns being expressed even by the “Snowdenesque” element in the Republican Party. Bush said the problem isn’t the program, but how President Obama describes it:

Well, first of all, I think the President has to lead, has to explain to people. He’s actually enhanced the intelligence capabilities, in many ways, because technology has gotten better. But he never defends it. He never explains it. He never tries to persuade people that their civil liberties are being protected by the systems we have in place. If people knew that, I don’t think there’d be any doubt that they would want to have the ability to identify people from the outside that may be trying to coordinate with some people in the inside.

Bush’s support for continuing the massive government surveillance programs is not surprising, particularly because, as the Huffington Post reports, his foreign-policy advisory team includes both Homeland Security secretaries under President George W. Bush — Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff — as well as his former NSA director Michael Hayden, who designed and implemented the domestic surveillance programs. However, that stance will certainly lead to clashes with several fellow Republicans seeking the 2016 nomination — most notably Senator Rand Paul, who tried to sue President Obama over NSA spying and pledged to end the programs on “day one” of his presidency. Bush’s passionate defense of the NSA gives them a way to draw attention to their own efforts to defend privacy, and tell voters that Jeb’s no different from W.

While the GOP isn’t fully “Snowdenesque,” a Pew Research survey conducted last month suggests NSA spying still isn’t very popular with Republican voters. Seventy percent of Republicans said they are growing less confident that government surveillance is serving the public interest, compared with 55 percent of Democrats — and that poll was conducted before John Oliver had Snowden reframe the controversy as a question of whether the NSA can see your junk.