Why Rand Paul is Suddenly Silent about NSA Surveillance

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Jim Cole/AP

Rand Paul hates the Patriot Act and NSA mass surveillance. Just don't ask him what he thinks of fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell's plan to keep both alive.

If Rand Paul is upset by Mitch McConnell's fast-track push to extend the Patriot Act and preserve government mass surveillance, he's not saying so.

The Republican presidential candidate loves to bash the National Security Agency's spying powers. He has pledged to end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. call data "on day one" if voters send him to the White House. He's even sued the Obama administration on grounds that mass surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment rights of every American.

But Paul has so far refused to weigh in on a measure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced late Tuesday that would extend unchanged the soon-to-expire provisions of the Patriot Act until 2020, thereby keeping the NSA call-records program intact.

Paul has not yet issued any statement about the McConnell bill, and his office repeatedly said the senator had no comment at this time.

The refusal to weigh in was also on display Wednesday night at an awards ceremony put on by The Constitution Project that honored Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy for their commitments to defending civil liberties. Though Paul took time to blast the NSA—saying the Founding Fathers would be "mortified" by government snooping on Americans—he did not mention McConnell or the push for clean reauthorization in front of the friendly crowd. And he refused to take questions from reporters before or after the event— even during a seven-floor shared elevator ride with National Journal.

The silence about his fellow Kentuckian—who has endorsed Paul for president—reflects the tightrope the libertarian presidential candidate is being forced to walk as he attempts to moderate some of his more fringe policy positions that have long irked much of the Republican establishment. Nowhere is that more evident than the national security arena, where Paul has had to reconcile earlier positions on things like Iran nuclear negotiations or foreign aid to Israel to align himself more firmly with GOP leadership.

The acrobatics got a little more perilous for Paul on Thursday, when news broke that a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan conducted in January accidentally killed two hostages, including one American, Warren Weinstein. The White House also acknowledged that two Americans affiliated with al-Qaida had been killed, though they were not specifically targeted. Paul—who filibustered for nearly 13 hours in 2013 opposing drone strikes on American soil against American citizens—kept relatively quiet on Thursday, and his message became a bit muddled. Paul is on the record opposing drone strikes within the U.S., but his view on American citizens killed by drone strikes overseas is less clear.

Compare these three statements sent to reporters on Thursday:

  • "It is a tragedy that these American hostages lost their lives, my prayers and thoughts are with their families," Paul said in a statement to National Journal.
  • "It is a tragedy that these American's lost their lives, my prayers and thoughts are with their families," Paul said in a statement to Bloomberg Politics' David Weigel.
  • "It is a tragedy that these hostages lost their lives, my prayers and thoughts are with their families," Paul said in a statement to The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi.

While the slight alterations between these statements may seem pedantic, they make a difference. "These Americans," "these hostages," and "these American hostages" (there was actually just one American hostage) mean three different things in this context. A spokesman for Paul later clarified to National Journal that he was only referring to Weinstein, not the two Americans who were affiliated with al-Qaida.

Paul's relative silence on the Patriot Act extension also provides fertile ground to some privacy advocates who have for months been privately suggesting Paul may want to keep NSA surveillance intact so he can continue to use it as a talking point on the campaign trail. That view boiled to the surface in November, when Paul cast a crucial "no" vote against an NSA-reform package that fell two votes short of clearing the 60-vote threshold required to advance in the Senate.

Paul defended his vote at the time, saying he could not support any measure that reauthorized portions of the Patriot Act, even with substantial reforms.

But just what Paul's plan is to kill the Patriot Act's mass-surveillance provisions—other than get elected president and act unilaterally—remains unclear.

It's possible, advocates suggested, that Paul is planning some sort of theatrical last-minute move—such as his drone filibuster—to block renewal of the Patriot Act provisions.

"This is a tricky situation for him," said Michael Macleod-Ball, the acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. "He is presented with a moment here where he can demonstrate his leadership on the issue. There is an opportunity now to fulfill his promise to fight the Patriot Act tooth and nail."

Paul isn't alone in his reticence to criticize McConnell's proposal or Obama's drone policy. Sen. Ted. Cruz, who is also running for president, told National Journal to check with his office when asked Thursday about the Patriot Act reauthorization. His office said it would have something to say on the bill but was "not sure on timing yet." Cruz also released only a short statement on Thursday's news, calling the hostage deaths a "tragedy."

But Cruz, unlike Paul, crossed the aisle with three other Republicans to support the Democratic-backed reform package that failed late last year. Paul's "no" vote came with a tacit acknowledgement that he believed he could get a better deal in 2015, despite the GOP takeover of the Senate.

Many Republicans, however, appear unwilling to budge from their hawkish pro-NSA stances, and few senators in either party appear willing to let the Patriot Act authorities expire completely. And McConnell's preemptive strike, even if used as a base bill that has reform amendments tacked on, sets a marker far from the reform measures the chamber nearly passed in November.

"The American people are under mass government surveillance, and it's absolutely critical that members of Congress stand up to it even when it is not politically convenient," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This is an issue with broad political consensus, from liberals to libertarians—but without steadfast and consistent commitment to reform, the government's mass surveillance will only get worse as technology advances."

This story has been updated with further comment from Paul about the drone strike.