Rand Paul Is Suddenly Quiet About His Favorite Topics

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.

Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 18, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire.
National Journal
April 23, 2015, 12:09 p.m.

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.

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