ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, for our weekly political conversation. We're going to start with this week's big disclosures of data collection by the National Security Agency. Joining me are columnist David Brooks of The New York Times and sitting in this week for E.J. Dionne, Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker. Good to see both of you here.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.
SIEGEL: Jane, since you're the visitor, I'll have you step up to the plate first here. You observed recently a difference on the subject of anti-terrorism and drones, a difference between the swagger of George W. Bush and the anguish of Barack Obama. Given this week's disclosures, is it fair to say that apart from how the two men may feel about, say, surveillance, they seem to have done just about the same thing in office?
MAYER: But with more anguish in the Oval Office from Obama. I mean, I'm not - they're not exactly the same, but I think that people that supported Obama thinking that he was going to be a much stronger defender of civil liberties and of transparency in government are disappointed probably in the disclosures this week. So he is not the president that they thought he would be on these particular issues.
And he's getting a lot of flak from his left side and from civil liberties advocates. And at the same time, what he likes, it seems, is always to be kind of in the solid center where he's doing this balancing act. And these issues he likes to talk about his balancing acts, where they're trade-offs between national security and privacy.
And he said today that's he's comfortable with the tradeoffs that they've made, though I would say that the civil libertarians, again, are very disappointed that there's - even if all three branches of government have signed off on these programs, there's not a lot of transparency. The court that signs off on these programs takes place in complete secrecy. Congress has never had a public debate on these policies, so the public's been left out of the equation. And I think a lot of people are very upset by what they're learning.
SIEGEL: David, what do you think? Do you think that the safeguards of our privacy or the competing concerns of security are sufficient here or is this post-9/11 thinking privacy-shmivacy?
BROOKS: Well, I wouldn't go quite that far. You know, I'm not as bothered as some. I'm somewhat bothered by the secrecy, but I don't feel it's intrusive. Basically, they're running huge amounts of megadata through an algorithm. That feels less intrusive to me than the average TSA search at the airport. And so I don't think it's particularly intrusive. It is supervised by the court. It has some congressional supervision.
It seems to be reasonably narrowly focused. And so I don't regard this as a crime against our civil liberties. I regard it as a somewhat moderate and balanced way to look for people who are calling bad people.
SIEGEL: On the other hand, to reach that point, you have to distinguish between megadata, which might be my phone number and every phone number I call, how often and for how long, and the content of the phone conversation. I mean, it's also data, isn't it, whom people contact?
BROOKS: It is, but the Supreme Court has long made a distinction between these two things, the content of the data and the fact that you're calling. And I would say if you have a credit card, if you have a phone, private companies are doing this to you all the time.
MAYER: But, of course, when you have a credit card, you know that that's part of the transaction. You are aware of it at the time. I think people were not aware that every single phone call that's going through Verizon and probably all the other carriers is now going into some vast databank that is perusable by the federal government.
And I just want to say, on this question of metadata, which means just the outside of the calls, who you call, for how long, I interviewed someone named Susan Landau(ph) this week, who is an engineer with Sun Microsystems, or she used to be. And she's an expert in this area of privacy and computers. And she says, people don't understand metadata is incredibly invasive and revealing.
You don't need to know the content if you can look at everybody who someone has called. You can figure out a pattern. They can tell if they called their doctor. You can see if there's a corporate takeover. You can see if there are opponents of the government meeting someplace.
BROOKS: To me, the most persuasive argument against all this is not what's being done now, but what might be done in the future. I do think the people in the national security state have relatively few checks on what they want to do. I think they want security overall and they don't really balance sometimes competing interests.
So I do worry that future abuse is a possibility, but right now I do think, especially with the anguish coming from the Oval Office and the FISA courts, so far what I can see is a check on a delicate trade-off.
SIEGEL: (Unintelligible) the anguish counts for something here?
BROOKS: I love anguish.
SIEGEL: Another big development at the White House this week was the extremely unsurprising appointment of Susan Rice to succeed Tom Donilon as national security advisor and the nomination of Samantha Power to succeed Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. I'd like to hear what both of you - Jane Mayer, what do you make of those moves?
MAYER: Well, Rice has been described as - first of all she's - as kind of the flashy sports car that Obama is getting instead of the reliable gray sedan that he had before in Tom Donilon. And in some ways, I think that's right. She is an academic. She is not a lawyer, as Donilon was. Donilon was kind of the brakes on the foreign policy, very good sort of inside man. She is much more of a lightning rod and someone who likes to be out in the media.
And she's very close with Obama. I think this is one thing that we can see that is happening is Obama is moving a couple people he's close with into these prominent positions.
BROOKS: Yeah, I'm actually excited about these. I think he's had too many people around him who are staff people, who are coordinators, who are low-key. Here with Susan Rice and Samantha Power, he's got two extremely strong people, extremely forceful people. If there is any ideological bent, I guess the phrase that's being thrown around is liberal hawks.
They tend to be a little more assertive on the use of American power when it comes to humanitarian missions, Libya the classic example where both of them were supporters of that. I think he's got some strong voices and voices he can trust.
SIEGEL: They have ideas. They have ideas.
BROOKS: They're not just process people.
MAYER: I agree that they're both very strong on human rights, but both of them have been very quiet on the subject of Syria, where Obama seems to not want to get involved, and neither of them have contradicted him on that.
SIEGEL: Let's talk a little bit now about New Jersey and the U.S. Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg. Unlike seats in the House of Representatives, we should say, where there has to be a special election, the rules on how you fill a Senate vacancy and the traditions of how you do it vary from state to state. So it turns out Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had a fair amount of discretion. David, how would you describe the way that he used that discretion?
BROOKS: Cleverly. You know, what he did was - the key thing he did was, he's up for re-election, and he did not want a popular Democratic Senate candidate running on the same ticket as him...
SIEGEL: In November.
BROOKS: In November. So he decided there would be a special election about three and a half minutes before.
SIEGEL: Well, a couple weeks, in October.
BROOKS: A couple weeks before. And so he separated the Senate election, where Democrats will really probably win, from his own election, where he hopes he will win.
SIEGEL: A special election preceded by the ingenious idea of an August primary for choosing the nominee.
BROOKS: With turnout of four and a half.
MAYER: Though I don't know - the unclever side of it is that he's now being attacked for just being out for himself. He has presented himself to the world as a fiscal conservative, yet he's spending $24 million on a special election two weeks before the regular election just, it looks like, so that he won't have to face a lot of extra Democrats coming out possibly to vote for Cory Booker.
SIEGEL: You don't think he's brushing up on his post-partisan credentials here, that...
MAYER: I think they've been well-brushed.
SIEGEL: He not only walks with Democratic presidents, but he...
MAYER: The Republicans are mad at him for this also because he did not appoint someone who - he could have put in a Republican who would have been a strong contender and stayed in that job until 2014.
SIEGEL: Republicans angry?
BROOKS: They are angry at him. That rarely works. Some Democrats are angry at Obama for not supporting some of Christie's opponents.
SIEGEL: David Brooks, Jane Mayer, thanks to both of you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
MAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.