Sen. Rand Paul vowed Tuesday while announcing his presidential campaign to immediately end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records.
"The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance," Paul, speaking before a raucous crowd in Kentucky, said. "I believe we can have liberty and security. And I will not compromise your liberty for a false sense of security, not now, not ever. "
Paul has been among the most ardent critics of the NSA's sweeping surveillance programs in Congress—a policy position that has grown more pronounced in the two years since the Edward Snowden disclosures began.
Some civil-liberties advocates criticized Paul in November of last year, however, when the Kentucky senator cast a crucial no vote against an NSA reform package that failed to advance in the Senate, claiming that it did not go far enough. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is also running for president, was one of four Republicans to support the Democratic-backed measure. Cruz said last week that he was "dismayed" Paul voted against moving the bill.
But Paul has said he will fight to block the reauthorization of a core surveillance provision of the Patriot Act, which is due to sunset on June 1 of this year unless Congress acts. The provision, known as Section 215, allows the NSA to collect phone metadata—the numbers, time stamps and duration of a call but not its actual content.
President Obama has said he favors reforms to the NSA that include ending the agency's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, but he has repeatedly insisted he must wait for Congress to send him a bill before he can shut the program down.
Paul on Tuesday indicated he would act unilaterally to end the dragnet surveillance—though he did not say whether he favors a transition that would have phone companies maintain their records in a way that government officials could request them on an as-needed basis after obtaining judicial approval.
"Your phone records are yours," Paul said during his speech. "The phone records of law-abiding citizens are none of their damn business."
Paul's speech leaves little doubt of his intention to slam his opponents within the GOP field on matters of privacy and surveillance. While he has repeatedly called for dismantling the NSA, Cruz's approach has been to reform it. Most of the other Republican contenders have largely defended the spy agency's programs.
But many civil-liberties advocates are still stinging from Paul's crucial "no" vote that helped down NSA reform last year—a defeat made all the more difficult to swallow given that reform efforts remain in limbo this year. The Republican takeover of the Senate after the 2014 midterms has further imperiled the chances of getting substantive surveillance reform through Congress, as defense hawks like Sen. Marco Rubio have warned that any NSA curtailment could jeopardize national security.
Some groups clamoring for NSA reform have cynically whispered that Paul blocked NSA reform in the Senate to make it a more prominent issue for him to campaign on. By voting no, Paul remained in good standing with GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, while preserving his reputation as an anti-surveillance hardliner.
That position also allows Paul to distance himself from Cruz, who is expected to jockey with Paul for tea party support during the primary season.
Presidential campaign rhetoric aside, privacy groups are still waiting to see what Paul plans to do in his day job as a senator to impact surveillance policy.
"What we're looking for is how he votes in the Senate, in particular the upcoming battle over the expiring Patriot Act authorities," Michael Macleod-Ball, the acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said Tuesday shortly before Paul's campaign speech. "Those who were upset at the time, the immediate reaction is, ok, what's the better plan? Now is the time to demonstrate what the better plan is."