Rand Paul Battles the PATRIOT Act (and Fellow Senators Who Miss Votes)

The Kentucky senator's anti-spy campaign comes to the Granite State.

on April 15, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last night, before arriving for a short and busy visit to New Hampshire, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul published an op-ed in Manchester's conservative Union Leader newspaper.

"As President of the United States, I will immediately end the NSA’s illegal bulk data collection and domestic spying programs," said Paul. "I will take my responsibilities seriously and protect the Fourth Amendment rights of all Americans. I believe the overreaching NSA spying program represents the worst of the 'Washington Machine.'"

He'd touched on some of the same themes Saturday, on a visit to San Francisco. Paul, having been accused of a light touch when drone strikes and police brutality were forced into the news cycle, was taking the opposite approach to the NSA. He would talk about it whenever he could, and focus on the June battle over whether to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act.

Before his big public event of the day in Londonderry, Paul joined a small group of New Hampshire state legislators who planned to endorse him. They wanted to hear his critique of the NSA. As soon as he arrived at the Londonderry Lions Club, Paul walked into a scrum of waiting cameramen and started talking about how a New York court's ruling against the NSA's bulk metadata collection would define his race.

"I'm the only Republican and the only Democrat who said I'd end this program on day one," said Paul. "It's illegal. We can catch terrorists by using the Constitution. We can use warrants, with a judge writing the warrant, with someone's name on the warrant."

Inside the Lions Club, Paul gave a truncated stump speech to around 100 voters, several of whom had been in the crowd for his April campaign announcement speech, just down the road. "We're getting ready to have a big fight over the PATRIOT Act," said Paul. "I was walking down the hallway with another senator, three years ago, when I led the fight to get rid of the PATRIOT Act. He said, 'What will happen? It will expire tonight? If you filibuster, it will expire.'"

One voter started applauding, even before Paul's punchline.

"I said: 'Maybe for a few hours, we can just use the Constitution!'"

Paul's town hall queries veered from common core to VA hospital funding to Social Security, but it ended with a question about spying. James Bellamy, a 28-year old law student at Western New England University, asked Paul if he'd vote for the USA FREEDOM Act. Some libertarian-minded Republicans, like Representative Justin Amash, were already promising to oppose that bill, a supposed fix to the data collection program that allowed the government to make bulk requests through alternate means.

"I sued the NSA," said Paul. "I'm a leader in trying to stop this. My bill would end it, and not replace it. The USA FREEDOM Act ends it, but then replaces it with another program. My concern is whether or not they'll have individualized suspicion to get your records. USA FREEDOM says the government is not going to collect your records in Utah, but the government can get them from the phone company. I'm okay with the government getting them from the phone company if they have your name on the warrant. I'm not okay with them saying, we need everybody in Londonderry's stuff, so even though it's not being held in Utah, they can get in from the phone company."

The answer to Bellamy's question wasn't easy. "I'm not perfectly at home with the USA FREEDOM Act," Paul said. "I voted against it once. The reason I voted against it was that it reauthorized the PATRIOT Act." 

In other words, Paul's vote would depend on the Senate's debate. That was where he'd be heading next—to the Senate, to debate. Before Paul even took questions, State Senator Andy Sanborn, an early endorser, made joking reference to Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

"We don't want to mention anyone else who might be living in Texas or in Florida," said Sanborn, explaining why Paul might have to run out early. "He's actually going to go back and do his job as a senator and vote."

On the way to the pick-up truck that would spirit Paul to the airport, NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser asked Paul if he agreed with Sanborn's snark.

"I get paid by the taxpayer, and I figure I need to vote, so I'm working very hard to do this and also vote at the same time," Paul said. "I'll not only be back there for a vote this afternoon, I'll be back and voting and leading the effort against the PATRIOT Act, and leading the vote to try to end bulk collection of your phone records."