Two likely Republican presidential candidates defended the PATRIOT Act and its terrorist surveillance provisions at a gathering of Republicans Friday morning. Both New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush were emphatic in their support for the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who is running for president, staged a filibuster earlier this week to protest the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act and these provisions. And while his name wasn’t mentioned by Christie or Bush, Paul's filibuster was clearly on their minds here at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Christie drew on his experience as a U.S. attorney to emphasize his credentials for discussing the issue. “This debate that we’re having right now about the PATRIOT Act and whether we should have strong intelligence around the world is a very dangerous debate, because it’s being done by people who have no experience dealing with what I’ve dealt with,” said Christie. “I’m only person in this national conversation at the moment who has used the PATRIOT Act, signed off on it, and convicted terrorists because of it.”
The New Jersey Republican spoke in favor of “aggressive law enforcement and strong intelligence laws” for combatting terrorism threats to the homeland. “I’m telling you there are responsible ways for us to oversee this and make sure civil liberties aren’t violated, but I’ll tell you something else. These same folks who are criticizing us now will be the same people who will stand on Capitol Hill if there’s another attack on America and interrogate the CIA director and FBI director and ask them why they didn’t connect the dots, and not realize the hypocrisy of their actions,” Christie said.
“The first job of the president of the United States is to protect the homeland, and that’s what we need to do,” Christie said, to applause in the audience. Matt Vermillion, a local blogger and Republican activist, responded with a loud shout from the back of the ballroom near the rows of reporters: “Protect the Constitution!”
Later Friday morning, Jeb Bush said he “concurred” with Christie on the NSA issue. “I just heard Chris Christie’s remarks as it relates to the PATRIOT Act. I totally agree with him and many Republicans that it ought to be reauthorized to keep us safe,” Bush said. “Boo!” shouted Vermillion, the activist, though the rest of the room applauded.
“There is ample evidence that the PATRIOT Act has been a tool to keep us safe,” Bush continued. “There is no evidence of anyone’s civil liberties being violated because of it.”
Bush added that reauthorizing the law is “definitely part of a comprehensive strategy for foreign policy.”
Beyond those Republicans’ speeches, the effect of Paul’s filibuster in the Senate is being felt in Oklahoma City. Three other senators running or considering running for president—Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—have been billed for the conference but are now unable to appear in person due to delays in the Senate’s schedule. Graham addressed the audience Friday morning by way of video. Paul was invited to the conference but was not listed as a speaker on the schedule.