GOP Maj. Leader Eric Cantor On NSA And Investing In Small Government Technology


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The House Republican Majority Leader and Congressman with the most charming southern drawl, Eric Cantor, sat down with me at The Atlantic’s Aspen Ideas Festival for an interview on the National Security Agency, Immigration, and the conservative case for supporting government-funded technology.

A Candid Moment On the NSA

Because Cantor didn’t want to conduct our interview in a federal prison, he obviously couldn’t divulge state secrets. So, I only had one question for him: If Congress isn’t perfect, why should we trust it to oversee spying programs in complete secrecy?

Cantor’s body language revealed a lot more than his answer: he immediately broke out into a big smile, leaned back, took a deep breath and said “This is a challenge…We do have a fundamental problem of distrust on the part of the populace towards Washington.”

I pressed Cantor on what specific steps he could take to provide more public oversight of the NSA, but didn’t get any. “I think there is certainly information and processes that are disclosable, that don’t get into national security secrets, that could help us engage in a national discussion in the importance of the national intelligence agencies.”

In fairness, no one has any solutions that would allow substantive public oversight outside of Congress. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed a new internal watchdog, the Church Committee, named after the 1970s body that first came up with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which must approve NSA spying requests. But, as critics note, the FISA court has basically become a rubber stamp, only rejecting 0.03 percent of NSA requests.

A few legislators have proposed limiting the the ability of the NSA to spy on Americans and forcing it to reveal more information to Congress. But all of these solutions depend on complete trust in the Federal government.

Until then, I can’t blame Cantor for being vague: He’s not alone.

Investing in Small Government Technology

Unlike some of his libertarian-loving colleagues, Cantor has been an advocate for both federal scientific funding and civic engagement tools. “If we can limit the government’s role by allocating resources to finding cures for disease, you will have that much less reason to be involved in someone’s health care,” Cantor tells me.

In other words, the conservative case for spending federal tax dollars on technology is a kind of long-term investment in small government. Empower citizens to be smarter, healthier and more innovative now, the less we’ll have the government to do for us in the future. “The dream of open government is to empower citizens.”

To that end, Cantor has genuinely been a leader in tech and direct democracy. He’s championed open legislative data, which will allow the public to more easily research laws and who supports them. He’s also built a Facebook tool to track and support legislation, Last, there’s YouCut, an SMS-based voting project that allows the public to suggest which federal programs that House Republicans should vote to cut.

Cantor is also cautiously optimistic that his colleagues will adopt Congressman Darrell Issa’s crowdsourcing utility, Project Madison, which permits the public to suggest line-by-line amendments to legislation. “I am one who thinks that more involvement leads to more knowledge and better product.”

Project Madison gives America a real shot at greater direct democracy. We’ll be watching to see if Cantor upholds his promise and presses his colleagues to adopt it.

Immigration: It’s Gonna Take Time

The House of Representatives is going to take its sweet time deliberating immigration reform. While the Senate passed one big comprehensive bill last week, Cantor says it will go through the long-winding “regular order” of debates and commissions. “The House is going to proceed in taking on each one of those issues, giving them the time they deserve and hopefully arrive at the solutions we’d like.”

The House Republicans have been a long-time proponent of more high-skilled visas for the technology sector. He didn’t give specifics on what kind of reform he’d like to see on this latest bill, only that it’s going to take some time for the House to combine all of their separate bills, including Issa’s bill on high-tech immigrants. We’ve partnered with Issa’s nonprofit, the open government foundation, in crowdsourcing ideas (contribute your ideas here!)

The Book: NSA Spied On Europe, High School Dropout Hypocrisy, Wendy Davis Shoe Reviews, Grenada Punishing Offensive Comments, Zuckerberg’s Gay Pride

Shepard Fairey is ok letting activists remix his iconic Obama photo to protest the NSA

NSA Spied On Europe, Too [TechCrunch]

  • The NSA reportedly bugged German diplomats in the U.S. and gained access to their networks.
  • Obama has pledged to disclose spying details to European allies and work to repair relations.

Wendy Davis Shoe Reviews [Slate]

  • Texas legislator Wendy Davis sky-rocketed to Internet-celebrity status for her 13-hour marathon filibuster against abortion reform last week.
  • The shoe’s she wore were a cult hit and snarky reviewers have taken to Amazon.
  • “I tried on a pair at the local mall and suddenly Texas Republicans started telling me what to do with my genitals. They started explaining reproduction to me like I was a seventh grader. Unfortunately, being male, I had no way to shut the whole thing down. I’m so confused…”

Grenada To Punish “Offensive Comments” [PhysOrg]

  • The tiny Caribbean island of Grenada passed a law to fine users up to $37,000 for publishing “offensive” comments.
  • “According to the bill, which is the first of its kind in the Caribbean, complaints about offensive comments would be filed with police. A judge would then decide if the message was offensive.”

NSA High School Drop Out Hypocrisy

  • During his Aspen Ideas Festival talk, Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian found it ironic that critics were smearing NSA leaker Edward Snowden as an uneducated high school dropout.
  • Yet, when people talk about Tumblr founder, David Karp, the fact that he’s a high school dropout means he’s a young prodigy.

Zuckerberg Celebrates Gay Pride [TechCrunch]

  • Zuckerberg, Facebook, and a crowd of top tech companies came out in full force to support marriage equality at San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade this weekend.

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