The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NSA: The 2016 issue that defies partisanship

A man looks at his phone while waiting for a train in New York Thursday. A US federal appeals court in New York Thursday ruled as illegal the National Security Agency's (NSA) mass collection of phone records, saying that modern technology enables invasion of privacy unlike anything in the past. (EPA/JUSTIN LANE)

A New York federal appeals court ruled Thursday that mass collection of phone records by the NSA is illegal. It's a major ruling, and declared and potential 2016 candidates were either silent on it or all over the map.

[NSA program on phone records is illegal, court rules]

Here's who said what so far:

  • Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul applauded the ruling
  • Marco Rubio and Chris Christie (two more hawkish GOP hopefuls) defended the program
  • Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton agreed on the need to pass the USA Freedom Act

(The USA Freedom Act is a bill Cruz co-sponsors that would end bulk data collection but still provide the ability to get information if there is "sufficient justification." It's a sort of middle-ground proposal, but privacy advocates are balking, and the Intercept called it "like a surgeon talking about taking a small tumor off of a much larger one" since it still allows the government to track plenty of other sources for data.)

More than just about any other issue these days, privacy and surveillance are cutting the two major parties in odd ways. I mean, Cruz and Clinton agreeing on an issue? And on either side of them are top GOP contenders (Rubio and Paul) taking polar-opposite positions.

Sanders and Paul were among the first to comment, tweeting about it shortly after the ruling (Paul also shaved $5 off the cost of his campaign store's Rand-branded "NSA spy cam blocker" for the day), which isn't surprising since each has been outspoken about ending mass government surveillance. But what is more surprising is they're the only ones who are, since polls show a majority of Americans agree with them.

[What the 2016 candidates have to say about the NSA court ruling]

A 2013 Gallup poll found 53 percent disapproved of mass phone and Internet record collection. When split by party affiliation, an even bigger majority of Republicans disapproved, 63 percent, while Democrats were actually slightly in favor, with 49 percent approving and 40 percent disapproving.

A December 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll, meanwhile, showed 66 percent of Americans were concerned about the NSA's mass collection of information.

We also know, however, that ending government surveillance isn't necessarily a top issue for a lot of voters. An open-ended Gallup poll in March showed government surveillance wasn't among the top concerns. While the issue was buzzy when Edward Snowden started lifting the veil on the surveillance apparatus, issues like terrorism, the situation in Iraq, the Islamic State and national security have now taken over. In the debate over security over privacy, Americans want their privacy, yes, but they tend to talk more about the need for security a lot more these days.

That reality is why politicians like Cruz and Clinton agree on the USA Freedom Act, and we might see other candidates voice similar views as well. Voters want privacy and security, so supporting a bill that claims to offer both is a safe way for them to respond. Some more hawkish Republicans, meanwhile, might opt to err on the side of national security.

Just don't expect Sanders or Paul to be happy about it.