Paul: Congress 'must repeal' Patriot Act surveillance provision

Paul: Congress 'must repeal' Patriot Act surveillance provision
© Greg Nash

Congress’s main tool to reform the National Security Agency might actually end up empowering the nation’s spies, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) is warning.

In an op-ed in Time after Thursday’s sweeping court ruling against the NSA, the presidential candidate doubled down on his opposition to the NSA’s snooping and urged the Supreme Court to take the matter into its own hands.  

“Congress must repeal the Patriot Act’s Section 215 provision that is used as the justification for the program’s legality,” he wrote.

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At the same time, he questioned the logic behind the USA Freedom Act — legislation that would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records by forcing the agency to request information from private companies using a “specific selection term.”

On Thursday, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said the NSA program was already illegal, since it exceeded the scope of the Patriot Act’s Section 215. Replacing it with another means for the agency to get people’s phone records would actually just empower the NSA, Paul said.

“Now that the appellate court has ruled that Section 215 doesn’t authorize bulk collection, would the USA Freedom Act actually be expanding the Patriot Act?” he wrote. “That would be a bitter irony if the attempt to end bulk collection actually gave new authority to the Patriot Act to collect records.”

Paul has been an ardent critic of the NSA, which has distinguished him both among his fellow Republicans and in the race for the White House.

While most congressional critics of the spy agency have rallied around the USA Freedom Act as a means to rein in the government’s surveillance powers, Paul has pushed for a flat expiration of Section 215. The provision is set to expire on June 1, a deadline that has sent Congress racing to find a replacement.  

Thursday’s court decision did not touch on the constitutionality of the NSA phone records program, which collects “metadata” about people’s calls but not their actual conversations. It did, however, raise questions about the legal justification that the government has relied on, which could ultimately be considered by the Supreme Court.

Paul on Friday suggested that the high court needed to probe the spying and determine whether the NSA violated both the constitutional rights to privacy and free speech, by limiting people’s freedom of association.  

It’s unclear whether the high court will be called on to get involved on this issue, however, since the Obama administration has not said whether it would appeal Thursday’s decision. Additionally, the looming expiration of the law at the end of the month is forcing Congress to weigh in, which is largely making the matter a moot point.

Two other appeals courts are also currently weighing the NSA’s phone records collection, which could further complicate the issue.