Hawk Rubio shows claws on NSA

Hawk Rubio shows claws on NSA

Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' Graham vows GOP will accept election results after Trump comments 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 McConnellTrump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (Ky.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs Rep. Mark Walker says he's been contacted about Liberty University vacancy MORE (N.C.) and outspoken Iraq War veteran Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump stokes fears over November election outcome The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Abortion stirs GOP tensions in Supreme Court fight 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 CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Cruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish Trump argues full Supreme Court needed to settle potential election disputes 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 GrahamSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Key Democrat opposes GOP Section 230 subpoena for Facebook, Twitter, Google 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 PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Rand Paul says he can't judge 'guilt or innocence' in Breonna Taylor case Overnight Health Care: Health officials tell public to trust in science | Despair at CDC under Trump influence | A new vaccine phase 3 trial starts 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.