Hawk Rubio shows claws on NSA

Hawk Rubio shows claws on NSA

Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE is eagerly taking on the mantle of the top hawk in the Republican Party’s growing ranks of White House contenders.

A congressional fight over the Patriot Act, surveillance and the National Security Agency has split Republican presidential hopefuls and is giving the Florida senator his best opportunity yet to carve out a distinct identity.

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Specifically, Rubio has leapt to the forefront of a small yet powerful group of Republican hawks dead set on keeping the Patriot Act intact.

“One day — I hope that I am wrong — there will be an attack that is successful,” he said on the Senate floor last week.

“The first question out of everyone’s mouth will be: Why didn’t we know about it? And the answer better not be, ‘Because this Congress failed to authorize a program that might have helped us know about it,’ ” he added.

“This is a serious threat, and I hope we reauthorize this bill.”

Alongside other GOP senators, such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (Ky.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump: Why isn't Senate looking into 'Fake News Networks'? Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Special counsel looking into dossier as part of Russia probe: report MORE (N.C.) and outspoken Iraq War veteran Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Ark.), Rubio wants to renew without change three provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the month. Among those is Section 215, which the NSA has used as its legal basis to collect bulk records about millions of Americans’ phone calls.

The program, which was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, collects “metadata” about people’s calls — such as the phone numbers of those on both sides of the conversation and when the call occurred — and is critical to connecting the dots between suspected terrorists, supporters say.

“Today our nation faces a greater threat of terrorist attack than any time since Sept. 11, 2001,” Rubio wrote in a USA Today op-ed over the weekend, as part of what seems to be a focused effort at winning public support. “Given these threats, now is not the time to end this program, which remains essential to our security.” 

It’s not the first time that Rubio has found himself pushing for the U.S. to flex its military or surveillance muscle.

Rubio, joined by the likes of Cotton and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Texas), recently mounted a failed attempt to amend a deal ensuring congressional oversight of the Obama administration’s deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

The Floridian has also been at the front lines in opposing the Obama administration’s plans to renew ties with Cuba, draw down forces in Afghanistan and have the U.S. play a less aggressive role in global affairs in general.

  Of the six major candidates to formally launch White House quests, Rubio — who has surged to the top of the polls in recent days — has been the most vociferous backer of the NSA program, which he has said might have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks, had it been in place 14 years ago.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDurbin: I had 'nothing to do' with Curbelo snub Republicans jockey for position on immigration Overnight Health Care: House passes 20-week abortion ban | GOP gives ground over ObamaCare fix | Price exit sets off speculation over replacement MORE (R-S.C.), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) have all expressed agreement with Rubio on principle about the NSA. 

But Rubio’s national appeal, prominence in the Senate chamber and seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee is a combination unmatched among White House contenders. Those assets also give him unparalleled access to classified material and the ability to shape current law.

The politics appears to be on Rubio’s side, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has captured headlines for months.

National security and terrorism are the top issue for 27 percent of likely Republican primary voters, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll earlier this month — more than any other issue. More than half said it was either their first or second priority.

A February poll found 25 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa said terrorism was the most important issue that the next president would need to address.

Still, Rubio’s battle will be a tough one, as he must find a way to transcend the growing divide within the Republican Party.

While Cruz has stood with Rubio on some issues, the Texan is opposed to the NSA’s spying and has co-sponsored the main reform bill making its way through Congress, called the USA Freedom Act. 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE (R-Ky.) has repeatedly called the NSA’s surveillance unconstitutional and has pledged to “immediately” end the snooping if he were to be elected president.

In an interview published Monday in the New Hampshire Union Leader, Paul said he was “going to lead the charge” against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, adding, “We will be filibustering. We will be trying to stop it.”

Cruz, Paul and other critics of the NSA got some critical support from a federal appeals court last week, which declared that the agency’s phone records program exceeded the legal authority given it by the Patriot Act.

That’s made the push for a “clean” reauthorization, which already faced an uphill battle in Congress, all the more difficult. NSA backers would not only have to renew the existing law, but they also might need to expand it in order to explicitly allow the agency to collect people’s phone records en masse.

The ruling “is an important victory for privacy” but should not be the last word, Paul said in an op-ed in Time magazine after the decision. It seemed to take direct shots at Rubio and his allies.

“The sacrifice of our personal liberty for security is and will forever be a false choice, and I refuse to relinquish our Constitutional rights to opportunistic and overreaching politicians,” he wrote.