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President Obama speaks Thursday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium on the White House complex. (AP)

Behind The NSA Speech, A Political Backdrop

Jan 17, 2014

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Frank James

The significant changes to National Security Agency practice and oversight that President Obama announced Friday will no doubt renew the debate over national security and civil liberties.

They're also likely to generate discussion of the political dimensions of that speech. Here are a few of the themes that serve as a backdrop.

The unlikely alliances — Obama's national security policies represent one of the few areas where he has managed to unite progressives and conservatives. That point is underscored by the diverse interests sounding similar alarms — Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., the ACLU and FreedomWorks.

Support for the NSA programs also crosses the usual ideological lines. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents supported the NSA's massive collection of phone data.

Where does Hillary Clinton stand? — There's still considerable public support for the NSA policies; navigating the politics of NSA surveillance activities will present a challenge to Clinton if she decides to run for president. As secretary of state and a member of Obama's first-term national security team, it could prove hard for her to separate herself from the controversial NSA policies — which could leave her exposed to attacks on the left during the primary process.

Defending administration policy would not only alienate progressives but also make it easier for critics to label her candidacy a third Obama term, at least when it came to civil liberties.

In October, Clinton didn't tip her hand during a question-and-answer session at Colgate University. She merely said the nation needs to have a "full, comprehensive discussion" about the NSA's data-collection activities. Clearly, that's not a good enough answer for a presidential candidate.

Where the Republican base stands — Libertarian-oriented Republicans have already staked out positions against the NSA's collection of phone data. Sen. Paul, a prominent 2016 GOP prospect, has a class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another 2016 prospect, has by and large supported the NSA's efforts and dismissed the international outrage over the surveillance of international leaders.

That position more closely resembles the traditional Republican strain of thinking that values national security over civil liberties. But in recent years, the balance of opinion in the GOP has shifted.

A July Pew poll found that 43 percent of Republicans thought government anti-terrorism policies went too far in restricting civil liberties, compared with 38 percent who said they didn't go far enough. That's a dramatic departure from just a few years ago: In 2010, just 25 percent of Republicans thought the policies went too far and 58 percent said they didn't go far enough.

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