Certain provisions of the Patriot Act, which gives the government a number of intelligence-gathering tools to use against suspected terrorists, are due to expire at midnight tonight. The Senate has been trying to extend these powers, but they ran into some trouble from Rand Paul (R-KY.)
Paul thinks the Act gives too many surveillance powers to the government, without sufficient checks and balances. “It’s very important that we are always vigilant, that we are eternally vigilant of the powers of government, that they not grow to such an extent that government could be looking into our private affairs for nefarious reasons,” he said in a floor speech today.
He doesn’t like the latitude to infringe on individual rights, without adequate levels of suspicion and due process, the Patriot Act gives to the government. “What we’re asking for are procedural protections,” he explained. “The Constitution gave us those protections. The second amendment gives you the right to keep and bear arms. The fourth amendment is equally important. It gives you the right to be free of unreasonable search. It gives you the right to say that government must have probable cause. There must be at least some suspicion that you are committing a crime before they come into your house or before they go into your records, wherever your records are. The Constitution doesn’t say that you only have protection of records that are in your house. You should have protection of records that reside in other places.”
Paul compared the powers granted by the Patriot Act to the approach taken by the TSA at airports: “We’re taking this shotgun approach; we think everyone is a terrorist. So everyone is being patted down, everyone is being strip searched. We are putting our hands inside the pants of 6-year-old children. Have we not gone so far, are we so afraid that we’re willing to give up all of our liberty in exchange for security?”
He has some support from the ACLU, which contends, according to an Associated Press report, that “the Patriot Act has blurred the line between investigations of actual terrorists, and those not suspected of doing anything wrong.” The number of court approvals for business record access more than quadrupled last year.
To address his concerns, Paul introduced two amendments to the Patriot Act. As described by his office, one of them “clarifies that the authority to obtain info under the Patriot Act does not include the authority to obtain certain firearm records,” while the other “would require financial institutions to issue suspicious activity reports only in cases in which an appropriate law enforcement agency initiates the request.”
Oddly enough, the firearm amendment pitted Paul against the National Rifle Association, which felt that his “well-intentioned” amendment is “problematic” because it “encourages the government to use provisions in current law that allow access to firearms records without reasonable cause, warrant, or judicial oversight of any kind,” as they explained in an email to supporters. I’m not exactly sure what that means, and I can’t find any reasonable elaboration of the point. It sounds like they’re saying Paul’s amendment will cause what it’s supposed to prevent, but it’s not really clear why they think so. They didn’t really “oppose” his amendment, saying instead that they would take no position on it, but their lack of support was noted with displeasure by the Gun Owners of America, which backed Paul.
In any event, Paul’s amendments were defeated in the Senate today, failing 10-85 on the firearms amendment, and 4-91 on the “suspicious activity” provision. This was nevertheless seen as a victory for Paul by Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post, who notes that the “tea-party freshman who has served in the Senate for less than five months was granted votes on his two amendments.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was none too happy about this, going as far as publicly accusing Paul of “threatening to take away the best tools we have for stopping [terrorists.].” Paul found these remarks “personally insulting.” Observers can decide for themselves who gets the last word, as the Patriot Act provisions passed the Senate this afternoon and will likely pass the House… but if the old National Review credo of “standing athwart history and yelling stop” is an important part of conservatism, then Rand Paul’s doomed quest was conducted in a fine old tradition.
Update: The Patriot Act extension did indeed pass the House later in the evening, 250-153.