Rand Paul Emerges From NSA Fight Stronger Than Ever

Rand Paul Emerges From NSA Fight Stronger Than Ever
Source: AP
Source: AP

At a little after 4:15 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted 67-32 to pass the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill to reform a number of the most controversial elements of the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law federal officials cited to justify the bulk collection of U.S. phone data.

Under the new legislation, the government will need to obtain a warrant to access those records, which will be held by the telecommunication companies. For the past 14 years, the information had been swept up by the National Security Agency in a massive and secret dragnet, creating a database agents could then comb through almost indiscriminately.

In the hours leading up to its passage, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced three amendments seeking to water down the new protections. They were all defeated by simple majority votes. The bill now goes to the White House, where President Barack Obama will sign it into law.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did not vote for final passage. He, like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and others, said the Freedom Act didn't go far enough in curtailing the government's snooping powers. Amendments submitted by Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another privacy hawk, were blocked by McConnell.

Tuesday's vote puts to bed a months-long feud that divided both parties down unfamiliar lines, with libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats uniting in opposition to an assortment of plans and tactical plays to extend the old provisions, which expired at 12 a.m. Monday. 

From the beginning, they were led by Paul. Now the Republican presidential candidate emerges with an imperfect law, fewer friends on Capitol Hill and the right to say he was the driving force behind a broad campaign to defeat the most onerous tools of the surveillance state.

Persona non grata: Paul has been criticized by members of both parties for using the Patriot Act debate as a forum to advance his personal political ambition. On that charge, he is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Every step along the way, his official Twitter account solicited cash and support in concert with Paul's machinations on Capitol Hill. 

But where Paul appeared cold and calculating after the vote — in a way that will inspire confidence among his supporters and attention from previously unconvinced Republican voters — his colleague from Kentucky, McConnell, was left stricken. After the game was up, the majority leader lingered, delivering a volley of petulant parting shots. 

The passage of the Freedom Act, McConnell said, represented "a resounding victory for those who are currently plotting against our homeland" as well as, in that vein, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who first disclosed the government's surveillance practices almost two years ago.

In an email to the Guardian after Tuesday's votes were cast, a spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, channeled his boss's acid wit, writing, "The most remarkable thing about the events of the past week is that they were utterly and completely avoidable, but Senator McConnell failed to heed the many warning signs that flashed bigger and brighter than the marquees on the Vegas strip."

For Paul, a Sin City-sized gamble just paid off. His campaign will now be counting the winnings.