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Week In Politics: New Restraints On Government Surveillance


So a week that began with the Senate accepting new restraints on government surveillance ends with news of a cyberattack on the Office of Personnel Management, and in The New York Times, a report that the Obama administration expanded surveillance of Americans' international Internet traffic. That's based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. We're going to talk about the week in politics now with our Friday regulars, Columnists David Brooks of The New York Times, who is in Piscataway, N.J., and in Washington, E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

Hello to both of you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.


SIEGEL: First up, privacy and surveillance. Edward Snowden has an op-ed page piece in The Times that includes this line about recent steps against certain kinds of data collection. He writes this, (reading) the balance of power is beginning to shift. We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy.

That, an allusion to 9/11. Do you guys agree with that? That Congress, the courts, other countries are crafting a post-post-9/11 era? E J, what do you think?

DIONNE: I think he is half to three-quarters right, but not 100 percent right. Half to three-quarters right in the sense that when we passed the Patriot Act, this was a sweeping law where Congress really wasn't thinking very much about civil liberties and was thinking mostly about preventing another attack. And the Senate member Russ Feingold, I believe, was the only senator to vote against the law at the time. And it's never a good idea to legislate so sweepingly when you're as scared as we were. So we're not at that moment, which is why both Republicans and Democrats have been willing to rethink our approach to this and say, should we put this within limits? And we've started to put it within limits. I don't say he's 100 percent right because I still think we are afraid of terrorism. Terrorism has not gone away, and there will be a demand for some capacity on the part of the government to prevent attacks.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, so do you think we're at or nearing some kind of turning point on this?

BROOKS: I think he's 80 percent wrong. You know, I think he's being kept in a place where they don't have media, apparently.

SIEGEL: He's writing from Moscow, we should say.

BROOKS: Right, well, maybe the Putin media has controls.

DIONNE: They don't have free media.

BROOKS: Yeah. You know, has he missed the rise of ISIS? Has he missed the rise of Boko Haram, the rise of these homegrown, freelance terrorists all around the world? To me, it strikes me as a completely menacing world, not a world that I feel is getting safer, but a world that is going in the reverse. And so I do agree that we've had to scale back and properly scaled back some of the things that we tried, and we've adjusted back to get the balance better with civil liberties, but the whole notion of a post-terror generation, a post-terror age, strikes me as historically bizarre, especially now when we see cyberattacks, which are another form of terrorism. And, to me, it's not a question of what environment we're in. It's how much do we trust the people who have been hired to keep us safe? And basically, you know, I trust them. And I haven't seen great harm being done by the national security apparatus. I think it's been overgrown, but I haven't seen a story of a headline abuse.

SIEGEL: Apart from Rand Paul's passionate opposition to data collection here, do you - does either of you see any action here in the presidential field over surveillance and the NSA? E J?

DIONNE: Well, I think the interesting thing is this splits both parties, but particularly the Republican Party. The Republicans include some of the most passionate libertarians, including, but not limited to, Rand Paul, who are skeptical of the government across a broad range of areas. Democrats are somewhat less split because they don't have that sort of libertarian edge. But there are a lot of civil libertarians in the Democratic Party who aren't crazy about this. But I think if you see a debate on it, it will be in the Republican Party. And just to what David said, it's not that terror has gone away. It's that, I think, we have a more measured attitude right now toward what we want the government to do and what kind of restraints we think should be on government even when we want to be protected.

SIEGEL: Is it a debate, though, David, or is it 24 to 1, with Rand Paul being the one Republican candidate who disagrees with the others?

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm actually very curious to see how Hillary Clinton declares herself on this issue. I've associated her with the hawkish side - the more national security side - but who knows as the primary evolves? You know, it's a debate that it's about a matter of faith. I personally find it very hard to understand the flow of the debate because it's very hard to know how much is being prevented, how effective these programs - it is. It is indeed shrouded in secrecy, as it has to be. And so it's a matter of how much do you instinctively trust government? And, I guess, frankly, I'd rather - you know, I know a lot of the people who are in the national security apparatus. They don't tell me what they're doing, but I do think they're, basically, patriotic servants, and I'd rather have them have the information than the cyberattackers.

SIEGEL: Speaking of Hillary Clinton, there was a CNN poll this week that put her favorability rating at 46 percent. Fifty percent said they view her unfavorably. In 2011, in the same poll, she had a favorability rating of 69 percent.

E J, is Hillary Clinton vulnerable, and is she so vulnerable she might attract another 10 Republicans entering the race?

DIONNE: That would be fun. I hope 10 more do get in. Part of what's going on in these polls has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. It has everything to do with the fact that she went from being a secretary of state and a much less political figure to being a political candidate, so a lot of Republicans who gave her decent marks before have just gone the other way. But she's had a difficult four or five months, with all the reports on speaking fees and the server - you know, the email server. Nonetheless, I think the other side of it is, she's still running ahead of every single Republican in the field. I think maybe once in a while one of them gets close. So she may have lost popularity, but the Republicans aren't yet in a position to beat her.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: Well, my question for her is what's her counter-narrative? Obviously, she's got a lot of negative stuff coming in, and maybe she's about to launch her counter-narrative, but so far there hasn't been much. She did a good event today - a good event recently on voting rights where she came out very strong, which is a good issue, but it's more of a tactical issue rather than a larger narrative. To me, the issue around her has always been a matter of imagination. Does she have the imagination to present us with something new? And if she can do that then she'll be able to beat back some of the negativity just by getting some positive attention to herself.

DIONNE: You know, she's been under wraps, consciously, for the last couple of months. She does have to change the narrative. I agree with David on that. And I think she does not want the election to be about her. She wants it to be about what she'd do for the country, and she's going to spend the summer putting a lot of ideas out there. And I think the test will be, do her numbers move at the end of the summer after she's said, this is what I actually want to do as president, not how I send my email.

SIEGEL: We'll have many Fridays to mull that over in that case. David Brooks and E J Dionne, thanks.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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