The Homeland Security Questions Hillary Clinton Will Have to Answer
Policy + Politics

The Homeland Security Questions Hillary Clinton Will Have to Answer

With a key provision of the Patriot Act due to expire at the beginning of June and a ruling Thursday by a federal appeals court judge that the law does not justify the mass collection of data about Americans’ phone calls by the National Security Agency, the issue of domestic security is certain to be front and center on the political stage in the coming weeks. 

That means that Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president next year, is going to be asked to go on the record on a number of related issues. However, from domestic surveillance to border security to cyber security, Clinton already has a fairly established record both from her time as secretary of state and her years in the Senate, so some of her positions are reasonably predictable. 

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Clinton on Thursday tweeted her support for a bill to roll back the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of data. “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act—a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties,” she wrote. The White House had endorsed the bill this week. 

Prior to her tweet, though, Clinton had been somewhat more hawkish than many in the Democratic Party and, in some areas, more hawkish than at least one of her potential Republican rivals, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). 

Last year, for example, she generally defended the mass surveillance programs put in place after the 9/11 attacks, and condemned former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a massive amount of information about it to the press. 

“People were desperate to avoid another attack, and I saw enough intelligence as a senator from New York, and then certainly as secretary [of state], that this is a constant—there are people right this minute trying to figure out how to do harm to Americans and to other innocent people,” Clinton said. “So it was a debate that needs to happen, so that we make sure that we're not infringing on Americans' privacy, which is a valued, cherished personal belief that we have. But we also had to figure out how to get the right amount of security.” 

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While she has appeared to be open to potential reforms of the programs run by the NSA, in the upcoming primaries she is likely to be pushed hard from the left. On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, currently her most prominent rival for the Democratic nomination, was unsparing in his criticism of the NSA, which he described as “out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner.” 

But she may face some pressure from the right as well. On Twitter, the libertarian-leaning Paul wrote, “phone records of law abiding citizens are none of the NSA's business!" 

When it comes to border security, Clinton will have to walk a delicate line. She’ll want to avoid antagonizing the various pro-immigrant groups whose support she’ll need in the general election while retaining the ability to credibly claim that she has national security top of mind. 

It’s a complicated dance, made harder by the fact that many immigrants rights groups already don’t particularly trust her. This week, Clinton endorsed a policy of providing a path to citizenship for many of the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, but a recording of a 2003 radio interview she gave while serving as a senator from New York that surfaced Thursday shows that she may still have fences to mend. 

“I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants,” she says in the interview. Referring to New York towns and neighborhoods, she says, “Come up to Westchester, go to Suffolk and Nassau counties, stand in the street corners in Brooklyn or the Bronx…You’re going to see loads of people waiting to get picked up to go do yard work and construction work and domestic work.” 

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Clinton also voted in favor of constructing hundreds of miles of fences along the U.S.-Mexico border and of adding more than 10,000 agents to the Border Patrol in the years after 9/11. Both will shore up her position with national security hawks, while doing little to improve her reputation with pro-immigrant groups. 

Perhaps the stickiest area for Clinton, at least from a political perspective, will be how she deals with the issue of U.S. cybersecurity. Ever since the revelation earlier this year that, as secretary of state, Clinton used a personal email account tied to a server at her home for official business, it’s been a simple thing for political opponents to paint her as the poster child for poor cybersecurity. 

The issue is not minor. This year not only did foreign hackers prove that they can penetrate large corporations, like Sony, they also managed to break into the White House’s non-secure email server and to take over a non-secret State Department email system. 

There may be no winning answer for Clinton here. There isn’t much federal authorities can do to protect private sector Internet security without intruding so far into previously private regions of businesses’ operations that any actions would be broadly condemned by privacy advocates. 

That won’t stop surrogates of Clinton’s opponents from raising the question. 

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