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First Thoughts: Three debates worth having

Three debates worth having regarding the leaked NSA story -- and the leaker… Obama on the programs on Friday: “They help us prevent terrorist attacks”… Clapper: “Transparency has a doubled-edged sword”… Rand Paul’s libertarianism becomes mainstream?... Getting 60 Senate votes for the immigration bill is relatively easy… But getting 70 is more difficult… The current conflict: More border security vs. not undermining the path to citizenship… McCain on closing Gitmo… And Democratic field for NJ SEN is getting crowded.

Handout / Reuters

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 6, 2013.

*** Three debates worth having: The story that’s once again dominating Washington and the political conversation is the leak of the secret National Security Agency programs, especially now that the leaker -- Edward Snowden, 29 -- has come forward and revealed himself. But the odds are that the political conversation will turn to another story later this week: immigration, as the reform legislation begins its long march toward a vote in the Senate. But we’ll start with the NSA story… There are three debates now taking place. One, is Snowden a hero who exposed this secret program, or a criminal who revealed classified secrets (and is now hiding in Hong Kong)? Two, what exactly should be classified? The intelligence community, more or less, shrugged its shoulders at the release of the phone-records story; after all, USA Today had reported on it back in 2006. But it’s apoplectic about the disclosure of the PRISM program (which gathers foreign intelligence through information from electronic sources, including major Internet companies). And three, why is much of our national security infrastructure being outsourced to private companies? As the New York Times writes, “Edward J. Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, has become one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the United States almost exclusively by serving a single client: the government of the United States. Over the last decade, much of the company’s growth has come from selling expertise, technology and manpower to the National Security Agency and other federal intelligence agencies.” If something is so important and classified, then why is it outsourced?

*** Obama on the programs: “They help us prevent terrorist attacks”: Answering a reporter’s question on Friday, President Obama came across as sympathetic to having a debate over the NSA program, but he also strongly defended the tactics. “I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards,” he said. “But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content — that on, you know, net, it was worth us doing.” And he stressed oversight: “It’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.”

*** Clapper: “Transparency has a double-edged sword”: In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the leaks have been harmful to the United States, and that the NSA has “filed a crimes report” on the matter. “Transparency has a double-edged sword. And that our adversaries -- whether a nation state adversaries or nefarious groups -- benefit from that same transparency.” Also in the interview, Clapper said much of the discussion of the massive phone-records database was hyperbole. “So the notion that we're trolling through everyone's emails and voyeuristically reading them, or listening to everyone's phone calls is on its face absurd. We couldn't do it even if we wanted to. And I assure you, we don't want to.” Clapper also said that at least two terror plots had been foiled by the government surveillance program. But he admitted to NBC’s Mitchell that it could be abused by a different administration. “That's a valid concern, I think. You know, people come and go, presidents come and go, administrations come and go, D.N.I.'s will come and go. But what is, I think-- important about our system is our system of laws, our checks and balances.” But our questions: Who has oversight over the FISA court? And does Congress really have oversight or is there only so much information they receive in briefings?

*** Clapper on allegedly misleading Congress: Yet also in the interview, Clapper didn’t have a good response why he seemed to mislead Congress about the program. “First-- as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked—‘When are you going to start-- stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which is meaning not-- answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.” Clapper went on to say that his answer to Wyden was about the content of the phone conversations, not simply archiving the phone records. Clapper is VERY popular inside the Obama administration, but no one will ever mistake him for a good communicator.

*** Rand Paul’s libertarianism becomes mainstream? Politically, what’s interesting is that Rand Paul’s libertarian positions are becoming more and more mainstream. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza: “Give Sen. Rand Paul this: He very rarely misses a political pitch slung his way. The latest evidence is Paul’s (R-Ky.) plan to launch a class action lawsuit against the government for the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records and monitoring of Internet data. “If we get 10 million Americans saying we don’t want our phone records looked at, then somebody will wake up and say things will change in Washington,” Paul argued during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” The question, however, is whether Paul’s positions are mainstream inside the Republican Party.

*** Getting 60 votes for the immigration bill is easy… : As we mentioned above, the issue that’s likely to dominate the rest of the week is immigration, with the Senate holding a cloture vote (requiring 60 votes) on the motion to proceed on the “Gang of Eight” legislation at 2:15 pm ET on Tuesday. And here’s something to keep in mind: There are AT LEAST 60 votes for the bill, especially after Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) announced she was supporting it. According to our math, you take all 54 Democratic votes, add the four GOP “Gang of Eight” members (Flake, Graham, McCain, Rubio), add Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) who voted for the measure out of committee, and then add Ayotte. That’s 60 votes, and we’re not even counting likely “yes” votes from folks like Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Corker (R-TN), or Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). But the name of the game has never been about getting just 60 votes; it’s been about getting close to 70. And we can list at least five other GOP senators who MIGHT vote the legislation: Roy Blunt (R-MO), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Johanns (R-NE), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

*** Getting 70 is a bit more difficult: But it’s not going to be easy. One of the reasons that immigration reform has been politically possible is that BOTH parties have had an incentive to pass reform -- Democrats want to follow through on a campaign promise, while Republicans want to improve their standing with Latino voters. Yet immigration reform supporters are now biting their fingernails because those incentives are beginning to fray a bit, particularly when it comes to the issue of additional border security. More and more Republicans are arguing that the legislation is flawed and that passing a bill won’t solve their problems with Latinos. Meanwhile, Democrats say they won’t back watered-down legislation that makes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants virtually unattainable.

*** More border security vs. not undermining the path to citizenship: NBC’s Carrie Dann sums up this conflict: “All eyes this week will be -- again -- on Marco Rubio, who's indicated he'll need more stringent border security amendments included to support the bill -- and bring more conservative votes with him. But measures he's publicly backed (like the inclusion of "triggers" proposed by Texas Sen. John Cornyn and the shifting of more plan-making authority to Congress) are non-starters with Democratic leaders on the legislation. In an interview with Univision, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Cornyn amendment a "poison pill" and said he won't accept "big changes" to the bill on the floor. “I mean, we have a senator from Texas, Senator Cornyn who wants to change border security, a trigger, saying that it has to be a 100% border security, or they’ll be no bill. That’s a poison pill. If people have suggestions like they did in the judiciary committee to change the bill a little bit, I’ll be happy to take a look at that. But we’re not going to have big changes in this legislation." The Washington Post’s Sargent also reports that Democrats see the Cornyn amendment as too onerous and therefore unacceptable to them.

*** McCain on closing Gitmo: Also over the weekend, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said “there is increasing public support for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and moving detainees to a facility on the U.S. mainland,” Reuters writes. “‘There's renewed impetus. And I think that most Americans are more ready,’ McCain, who went to Guantanamo last week with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, told CNN's ‘State of the Union’ program.” More: “Republican Senator John McCain said on Sunday there is increasing public support for closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and moving detainees to a facility on the U.S. mainland. ‘There's renewed impetus. And I think that most Americans are more ready,’ McCain, who went to Guantanamo last week with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, told CNN's "State of the Union" program.”

*** Three’s Company? As expected, the Democratic primary for special Senate election in New Jersey is beginning to get crowded. After Newark Mayor Cory Booker officially announced his Senate bid on Saturday, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) followed suit a day later. “U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone said Sunday that he’s officially in the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Frank Lautenberg and can win the Democratic primary against better-known Newark Mayor Cory Booker by running on his progressive congressional record,” the AP says. “Pallone, (D-6th Dist.) planned to hold a news conference Monday announcing his intentions. He spoke exclusively to The Associated Press on Sunday night.” Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) is the third Democrat to announce his candidacy, and there could be a fourth. “Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) told fellow Democrats at a meeting Sunday night she was planning to run. Her boss, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, was in Booker’s cheering section at his campaign kickoff in Newark.”

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