Does Rand Paul Really Care About NSA Reform?

Staking his campaign on protecting liberty.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Senator Rand Paul is staking his presidential campaign, in part, on his dedication to reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. So it's an unfortunate irony that Paul may be one of a crucial few votes in the Senate that could obstruct the most substantial reform of the NSA that Congress is likely to consider. 

Last week, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill called the USA Freedom Act. It would, among other things, terminate the NSA's practice of swooping up data about your phone calls and storing it in a vast searchable database. That practice, known as bulk collection, is unpopular, legally dubious and demonstrably ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks. The bill that would ban it has support from Silicon Valley, privacy advocates and most of American officialdom.

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Yet when the Senate took it up, Paul -- after a 10-hour soliloquy on the Senate floor condemning NSA surveillance -- voted against it

Why, you ask? He says the bill doesn't go far enough. He'd like to add amendments that would enhance protections for whistle-blowers, limit the NSA's overseas spying, require more privacy protections, and on and on. These are all laudable debate topics. They're also contentious -- and adding amendments at this stage could upend the delicate compromises that have enabled the bill to proceed as far as it has. 

If the Senate fails to act, several provisions of the Patriot Act will expire on June 1. But this would be no victory for civil liberties. The government could still conduct bulk surveillance under other legal authorities. (It has done so in the past.) The USA Freedom Act, by contrast, would explicitly ban such spying, and it would require much more transparency about the NSA's surveillance orders and the legal rationales used to justify its programs. 

Useful counterterrorism tools that the Patriot Act authorizes are also in jeopardy if the Senate doesn't act. One, known as a roving wiretap, allows the government to follow a terrorism suspect across devices, so if he's constantly ditching burner phones the feds can still keep tabs on him. This provision, used less than 100 times per year, is precisely the kind of surveillance the government should be engaged in -- targeted at real threats, limited in scale and accountable to the courts. 

So Paul would be obstructing a bill that would make the NSA much more transparent and much less intrusive. He'd be ensuring that bulk data collection can continue. And he'd be jeopardizing nonintrusive counterterrorism authorities. In other words, the senator's theatrical objections to government surveillance are starting to look awfully cynical. (The accompanying souvenirs for sale don't help.) 

He, and the rest of the Senate, should get behind this bill. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.