Sen. Rand Paul is right about this much:
The bulk collection of American phone records by the National Security Agency — records seized without regard to need, suspicion or even legal authority, but merely because the NSA has the technological power to do so — clearly violates the Fourth Amendment ban on warrantless searches, and it ought to be halted.
The fact that intelligence leaders have lied repeatedly to the American public and to Congress about the extent of that program, the fact that they expanded their power beyond what Congress intended, and their efforts to use secrecy to block judicial review, also argue strongly in favor of ending the program in its current form. It is exceedingly dangerous to claim that intelligence-gathering ought to be exempt from the institutional checks and balances within our system of government, which is essentially what defenders of the program have done.
Again, Paul is right about all of that, and a lot of people agree with him. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted 338-88 to revise the bulk collection program by ensuring that telephone companies, not the government, retain control over data detailing whom you called or texted, when you called, how long you spoke, etc. Under the USA FREEDOM Act**, the government would be able to access that data only through a court warrant.
It’s a reasonable compromise, as the overwhelming and bipartisan vote in the House demonstrates. (Most of those who opposed the bill did so because they believe that it went too far in restricting domestic intelligence-gathering.) However, the reform legislation has had a more difficult time in the U.S. Senate, where it has been ardently opposed both by Paul and by his powerful colleague from Kentucky, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The two men are often allies, but in this case they have fought the reform bill for two very different reasons.
McConnell is a strong supporter of the bulk collection effort and dislikes any attempt to restrain it. He has used his powerful position to try to block reform, warning that it endangers national security. But as a floor vote taken Sunday night proved, McConnell has badly miscalculated. Even in a GOP Senate, he doesn’t have anywhere near the number of votes needed to make his position stick. Later this week, over McConnell’s objections, the Senate will pass the USA Freedom Act overwhelmingly
Paul, on the other hand, wants to kill the USA Freedom Act because he believes that even the reform effort gives the intelligence community too much power. He has expressed that opposition in lengthy floor speeches, in media appearances, in tweets and emails and everything short of smoke signals. All in all, his grandstanding on the issue has amounted to a well-orchestrated effort to draw media attention and contributions to his presidential campaign, and in that regard it has been a success.
On matters of substance, however, Paul’s histrionics haven’t really altered the outcome of this debate. Again, the USA Freedom Act will soon become law over his strident objections. He has succeeded in cementing his popularity within the relatively small but vocal libertarian wing of the GOP, but by doing so has alienated many others, including most of his fellow Republican senators.
Like his father, Paul gives voice to an important point of view that ought to be heard and occasionally heeded in American politics. But like his father, he is also never going to be a serious candidate for president. He is very very right about a small number of important things, and very wrong about just about everything else.
UPDATE: Some commenters have asked for examples of things that Rand Paul has gotten wrong and that disqualify him from serious consideration as a presidential candidate. I’m glad to oblige with a partial listing:
** The USA FREEDOM Act is a painfully awkward acronym for the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act.”