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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT