Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Spying issue won't go away

By Van Jones, Special to CNN
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Van Jones: Spying programs are symptoms of broader, long-lasting changes
  • Jones: This is not "another Obama scandal;" all government branches and parties involved
  • Jones: Finding a balance between civil liberties and national security is the challenge
  • It will cause unusual political coalitions and be a new defining debate, he says

Editor's note: Van Jones, a CNN contributor, is president and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform focusing on policy, economics and media. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. He is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter: @VanJones68.

(CNN) -- Recent revelations about the extent of government phone and Internet surveillance are already shaking up the national debate.

But these programs are just symptoms of broader changes that will be shaking up our government and society for many decades to come.

Let's not cheapen or simplify the debate by trying to ram these revelations into the GOP-friendly framework of "another Obama scandal."

We should be honest and admit that something much bigger than that is going on here. The implication of the issue for our politics will be felt long after today's round of political "gotcha" and "pin the tail on the donkey" has faded away.

Van Jones
Van Jones

The FBI and National Security Agency have been mining Internet servers, searching for e-mails, videos and other documents under a program code-named PRISM for six years.

First, let me be clear: I am an opponent of PRISM. As a matter of first principles, I oppose overreaching, unaccountable spy programs.

That's why I supported neither the so-called Patriot Act, nor the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, when those measures were first considered by Congress.

U.S. Government spying on Americans

Nor was I supportive when President George W. Bush aggressively deployed his new powers.

Nor was I supportive when evidence began to emerge that the government was interpreting overly broad laws in an overly broad manner.

And I am not supportive now. Even as a former Obama administration official, I am always willing, when necessary, to constructively criticize the White House on matters of national importance.

But I oppose those who would try to pretend that this is somehow "another Obama scandal." It is not. What is happening is broader than that: All three branches of government and both political parties are implicated.

Congress passed the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and both the Obama and Bush administrations have implemented these programs. This is not a partisan issue.

In fact, it is much larger than any political scandal du jour. We are seeing the collision of two new forces in our society with something old, but precious.

New: The ability of terrorists, including lone wolves, to strike us at any time, including with weapons of massive destruction.

New: Information technology that gives the government extraordinary spying abilities, far beyond what was technically feasible even a decade ago.

Old: Our Constitution, written centuries before programs like PRISM could even be imagined, yet a rightly revered document that should guide us still today.

How we balance these three factors is one of the great challenges for this generation of Americans. Indeed, the collision is actually turning our political parties inside out.

There are "state powers versus civil liberties" fights happening within both parties. Presidents Obama and Bush line up on one side, together. On the other side are such strange bedfellows as Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

The issues are so deep, profound and even existential that neither party has a stable, predictable, internal consensus.

Translation: Arguments will be heated over this balance in both parties' presidential debates.

In the Democratic primary and during the 2016 convention, champions of civil liberties will certainly challenge Obama pragmatists over government spying. This will be especially true if Vice President Joe Biden and/or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seek the presidency.

Meanwhile, inside the GOP, right-wing libertarians will challenge security hawks over the same issue.

It is uncertain which side in which party will win this debate. But for once, at least, we are about to enter territory that cannot easily be viewed through the lens of "party versus party."

The battle to define the proper balance between civil liberties and national security is more likely to emerge as a case of "principle versus principle," fought out inside each party.

The resulting dynamic could create very interesting political coalitions in 2016 and even a new "issue map" for American politics -- completely redrawn by one of the defining debates of our time.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Van Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT