Sen. Rand Paul's Lonely Crusade Against NSA Spying

PHOTO: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks in Washington, June 12, 2013.
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Sen. Rand Paul has sponsored a bill that would curb the National Security Agency's ability to search phone records. Not a single other U.S. senator has signed on, and that's good news for Rand Paul.

While the Washington establishment is fleeing a direct confrontation with the Obama administration over a slew of secret surveillance programs that raise questions about privacy, the Senate's resident Tea Party libertarian aggravator is reveling in the relative solitude.

Now that both political parties have a hand in supporting national security policies that appear more aimed at catching terrorists than protecting privacy, the NSA scandal is the perfect playing ground for a senator with presidential ambitions who is building a brand as an equal opportunity agitator.

"The revelation that the NSA has secretly seized the call records of millions of Americans, without probable cause, represents an outrageous abuse of power and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. I have long argued that Congress must do more to restrict the Executive's expansive law enforcement powers to seize private records of law-abiding Americans that are held by a third-party," Paul, a Republican, said when introducing his bill, the "Fourth Amendment Restoration Act of 2013."

The strategy keeps intact Paul's reputation as a "disruptive" politician, as conservative pundit Erik Erickson has coined it.

"With the exception of Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP has left the playing field on this vital issue," wrote one contributor to the conservative online community Red State. "They are afraid of being called hypocrites over '!GEORGE W. BUSH'S USA PATRIOT ACT!' And for evil men to triumph, the good men have to only do nothing."

Few in Washington are running to the defense of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, even if they harbor concerns that the government may have overreached.

Democrats are hesitant to criticize policies advocated by a president of their own party. And even the ones who have raised questions about the scope of the policy aren't clamoring in outrage.

Remember Al Franken, now Democratic senator from Minnesota, and author of the liberal manifesto "Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them"?

As recently as 2012, Franken raised concerns that it was "too easy" for companies to hand over their customers' personal information . Now, he says he is comfortable with the program.

"This isn't about spying on the American people," Franken told Minnesota station WCCO. "I have a high level of confidence that this is used to protect us. And I know it has been successful in preventing terrorism."

Many Republicans view it as a vindication of Bush-era policies that Obama, who once questioned them as a senator, has continued as president.

"I think it's interesting that you see it's a lot of establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle who are defending these kinds of programs," said Keli Carender, National Grassroots Coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. "It's such a shock to think that they are collecting information and communication on every single person who is innocent. There's no Fourth Amendment being observed."

House Speaker John Boehner called Snowden a traitor, and in a rare moment of agreement with President Obama vocally supported the program in an interview with ABC News Monday.

"There is heavy oversight of this program by the House Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan basis and the Senate Intelligence Committee," Boehner said. "And that's why I feel comfortable that we can operate this program and protect the privacy rights of our citizens."

He is joined by a slew of Democratic and Republican lawmakers defending the Obama administration's use of probing national security programs.

Paul, on the other hand, called Snowden's actions a "noble gesture" and a potential exercise of "civil disobedience." "I think he released information to say, look, the Bill of Rights is being ignored. And I think that in many ways is a noble gesture because he's having to give up a great deal to be on the run," Paul said on Fox News on Tuesday.

Further burnishing his anti-establishment credibility, the Kentucky senator has not joined another bi-partisan group of his colleagues in support of another, more moderate bill that would ask the administration to declassify their legal justification for probing into Americans' phone records.

But there are risks to going against the prevailing Republican Party position on the NSA's use of controversial techniques to combat terrorism.

If Paul does in fact have ambitions to run for president, he is potentially alienating a source of financial and political support.

But Paul's reputation of the standard bearer of a nexus of Libertarian and Tea Party causes has endeared him to the most passionate elements of the Republican Party's base—Tea Party activists who made 2010 a wave election for Republicans up and down the ballot.

And in the mold of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, there could also be significant upsides to the strategy.

The outsider campaign his father executed for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 raised nearly $40 million and managed to surprise GOP insiders when he came in second place in Iowa's Ames Straw Poll.

"The establishment would like to say you're taking a risk if you stand up to them. If you look at people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, [R-Texas], and Mike Lee, [R-Utah] they have so much support from people outside of the Washington, DC beltway. It actually makes people more passionate.

"There are people who would be willing to walk through the rain and the hail and door knock for people who are fighters," Carender said.

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