On Saturday, presidential hopeful and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) made an unusual campaign stop. Wearing his usual shades and messy curls, Paul posed with arms crossed in front of a controversial Utah data center belonging to the NSA. Alongside the photo, posted on Facebook, Paul made a bold campaign pledge: to essentially tear that data center down.
"I'm on my way to the airport, but we decided to stop by the NSA facility in Utah," the caption on Paul's Facebook page says. "When I become president, we'll convert it into a Constitutional Center to study the Fourth Amendment! Bulk data collection must end!"
"Bulk data collection must end!"
Senator Paul already succeeded in pushing to end bulk collection of telephone data — a practice that was famously revealed in 2013 by Edward Snowden, who remains in exile. While the remedy to that program came in a legislative reform bill, it was attacked from several angles; one of the lawsuits challenging it was launched by Paul, who called it a "clear and continuing violation of the Fourth Amendment." His Republican competition, including Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, have openly said they want to expand NSA spying.
So if you're looking for a hero to end the surveillance state in the current crop of presidential candidates, your options are very limited. In fact, the only ardent critic among more than 19 Democratic and Republican hopefuls is Senator Paul. Paul is well known for cheesy bumper sticker lines and public stunts, like his impressive 12-hour drone filibuster, but when it comes to fighting mass government surveillance he's actually one of the only people who has put earnest work into reform. But it's unclear what Paul brings to the table beyond fighting the now-defeated phone records program, which he still rails against on his campaign website as if it were the chief ongoing threat from the NSA.
Paul needs to start talking about more than phone records
Paul says that as president he will "immediately end the NSA's illegal bulk data collection and domestic spying programs and protect the Fourth Amendment rights of all Americans." Unfortunately, that could be a loophole depending on Paul's own interpretation of what's legal; last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned a ruling that said the NSA's bulk phone spying program was unconstitutional.
Completely shutting down a huge NSA data center seems like just another silly campaign promise bordering on a stunt, unless Paul believes that all of the NSA's other bulk collection programs — and there are many of those — are just as illegal as the phone records program. Even though he may be the only vociferous candidate when it comes to surveillance reform, Paul will need to start talking about more than phone records if he wants his reformer credentials to remain convincing.