The First Fight for 2016's GOP Hopefuls: Surveillance

Jeb Bush came out in favor of bulk metadata collection. Opposed to him is fiery libertarian Rand Paul. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

On Monday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush staked out a position on National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance in opposition to his libertarian rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Bush argued on publishing platform Medium that parts of the Patriot Act that expired Sunday night should be kept:

"Today we have lost the metadata program, authorized by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, an important tool in helping law enforcement and the Intelligence Community connect the dots between known foreign terrorists and potential operatives in the United States," he wrote.

Bush has yet to file the Federal Election Commission forms announcing his intent to run for president. Paul filed with the FEC on April 8 after formally announced his campaign on April 7.

Section 215, which Bush argues should be kept, has most famously allowed bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA since 2001. In this context, metadata refers to information about a phone call—who was called and for how long, for example—but not the contents of the conversation. Critics of the Patriot Act, Rand Paul included, argue that allowing law enforcement agencies to see who Americans are calling is a violation of their privacy rights. They also argue that such tools have not helped the government thwart potential terrorist attacks. According to Cindy Cohn and Andrew Crocker at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which argues government surveillance is unconstitutional, "Every assessment about the bulk collection of telephone records, including two by hand-picked administration panels, have concluded that 'collecting it all' hasn't materially aided any terrorism investigation."

Paul filibustered in the Senate over the weekend, preventing a vote to extend to the provisions. His actions have sparked criticism from within the Republican Party, including an accusation from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida that the filibuster was nothing but "political posturing."

The Kentucky libertarian is easily the most opposed to bulk collection of phone records out of the Republican hopefuls. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rubio have both spoken out in favor of the practice. Cruz positioned himself as a moderate by backing the proposed USA Freedom Act, a replacement for the Patriot Act, which lessens the NSA's ability to spy on Americans somewhat by requiring the government to ask private companies to hand over records, rather than having the NSA collect them directly, but doesn't go far enough for Paul. Cruz said the Freedom Act strikes "the right balance" between "privacy interests of law-abiding citizens [and] the public's interest in national security." Paul says it still gives the government too much latitude to spy on Americans. Marco Rubio supports the Freedom Act. So does President Barack Obama.

The Senate on Sunday night voted 77-17 in favor of lining up a vote on the Freedom Act, which passed in the House of Representatives in May.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been mum on the issue so far. But her challenger to the left, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is opposed to bulk collection.