Rand Paul on Blocking the Patriot Act, GOP Hawks, and Edward Snowden


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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has had a busy couple of months.

In April the junior senator from Kentucky announced that he was officially running for president. In May he released his new book, Taking a Stand, which argues that only a "new kind of Republican" can win a general election against Hillary Clinton, in part by embracing such cross-partisan issues as privacy, as he did most famously in a March 2013 filibuster about drone policy.

And as the clock struck down to June, Paul fulfilled a campaign vow – and pissed off a lot of Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and much of the 2016 presidential field  – by blocking reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

Reason Magazine Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch sat down with Rand Paul in his Washington, D.C. campaign office Thursday to discuss his ongoing disputes with GOP hawks like Lindsey Graham, whether Edward Snowden should go to prison, and what will be the future of NSA surveillance.

Runs approximately 14.30 minutes.

Produced by Joshua Swain and Meredith Bragg.

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This is a rush transcript. All quotes should be checked against the audio for accuracy.

Reason: Senator Paul, thanks for joining us.

Rand Paul: Glad to do it.

Reason: So you block the PATRIOT Act reauthorization at midnight before June 1st. We have, about 40 hours later…

Rand Paul: …of freedom. Forty hours where we rely only on the Constitution. We survive for 40 hours.

Reason: …barely survive those 40 hours. A bill passes that you oppose, because you thought that it didn't go far enough, and now the administration is petitioning the FISA court to reanimate the bulk collection of metadata. How much, after all this exertion, did freedom win?

Rand Paul: You know, I think there were some successes. The USA FREEDOM Act that passed ends the bulk collection by government, so the government will no longer be collecting your phone records and sending them to Utah. Now the question is, how will it transform or will they still be collecting?

My understanding is the NSA lives at the telephone company already. They're there, they have a portal, they have computers; they suck up all your phone data every day, as soon as you make it, they suck up all your phone records. Until now they've been pushing "send" and it goes to Utah. I think they will no longer push "send," but I think it will still be on an NSA computer.

I think it will be an interesting question to ask. And I don't know this absolutely, but my understanding is probably it's still going to sit on a computer. The computer's not going to be in Utah, it's going to be at the phone company….My guess is a government computer will still soak up all this data.

The other thing is, right before the PATRIOT Act, many people, people who love surveillance of Americans' phone records, were complaining we weren't getting enough. They said we were only collecting 20 or 30 percent of the cell phone records. One interesting question will be, under the new format, will they actually be collecting more of your cell phone data, because they now will have a more direct communication through the phone company?

Reason: You say in your book that George Orwell's 1984 is not hyperbole, and that it's possible that they're collecting information on every single American. Do you still think that's true today?

Rand Paul: Yeah, and I think the thing is, when I was a kid and read 1984, in the 1970s, probably, I say I was somewhat comforted because we didn't have the technology to spy on everybody all the time. Now I think we literally do have the technology, and a large amount of data and information can be gotten from metadata. Some people say, "Oh that's just boring old medical, or boring old business records," but the thing is, you put it all together, and a lot can be determined about a person.

Many people are telling me they think the phone records is just the tip of the iceberg. That through the Executive Order 12333, they're actually collecting much more—maybe text messages, maybe email. Email, after six months, even the content….They say, "Oh, we're not collecting content of conversations." Well, I think a good question would be, what about content of email? After six months, they say it has no protections.

They also will tell you, General Hayden wrote this in Time two days ago, he said you know what, the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect records at all. That the commanding case here is Maryland v. Smith, and the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect you at all. That worries me. I think we need to have another ruling at the Supreme Court level, because I think the information in the cloud should get the same amount of protection as the information in the castle.

Reason: A person who is of some importance who has endorsed you for president used words like "demagoguery" and "campaign of disinformation" this week. Have you…

Rand Paul: Certainly that couldn't have been referring to me. Must have been somebody else.

Reason: …have you talked to Mitch McConnell this week?

Rand Paul: We have, we're on good personal terms and we disagree on this issue. But I'm also happy to have the debate. I think if you get outside the Beltway and you ask people, "Do you think the government's gone too far in this?" I think overwhelmingly the public sides with me. There was a poll, about a week ago, that [asked] people under 40, "Do you think the government's gone too far in collecting your phone records?" Eighty-three percent of people under 40 believe that, and so I think I'm in good company.

Reason: You said, in the heat of battle, that you thought that maybe some of the people on the pro-surveillance side wish that something bad would happen, a terrorist attack would happen, to prove their point. Do you actually think that? Or was it a heat-of-the-battle moment?

Rand Paul: I think that might have been hyperbole. Sometimes you get your juices flowing, and I was at the moment annoyed that it appeared that they were trying not to let me speak. That may have been an overstatement. And it is. How can I know the motives of people and what they believe?

But I do think that people use fear to try to allow government to grow larger and that the surveillance state and Patriot Act and all of that stuff has come out of fear. And I want people to know that you can stop terrorists, you can collect the records of terrorists using the Fourth Amendment. In fact, I've asked that question of former NSA officials: "Can you get more information with a constitutional warrant, a judge's warrant, or with metadata?" And they said, "Oh, much more with a warrant."

And so almost all of these cases, we've had some information on the terrorists before. Even 9/11, we had a great deal of information. We had captured the 20th hijacker, and a traditional warrant, I think, could have gotten his information. And where I don't want to be misinterpreted is as someone who wouldn't give permission for that. If I were the judge, and you came to me—the FBI agent did this—and asked for permission to look at Moussaoui's records a month before 9/11, I'm a "yes." I'm a "yes" to look at the records of people you have suspicion, but I'm a "no" if you want to generally collect everyone's records, particularly of people for whom you have no suspicion.

Reason: Chris Christie said that you and Mike Lee are on the side of Edward Snowden. You write about Edward Snowden pretty interestingly in the book, comparing him to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; I think the framing is, "the leaker and the liar." If on the day after inauguration, you get a phone call and it's Edward Snowden saying, "Alright, I'm ready to come back," what are you going to do?

Rand Paul: You know, I think justice is about making punishment proportional to the crime. And I think his intentions were to reveal something that he felt like the people in government were lying about. And it turns out they were lying.

The director of national intelligence committed perjury in front of the Senate committee. My understanding is it's about a five-year sentence, but instead of getting any kind of sentence, instead of getting a slap on the wrist, or instead of even being fired, he's been rewarded, and he's still in charge of intelligence. And I think he's done a great deal to damage trust.

On the other side of the coin, can you let people who have sensitive data just make the decision to reveal it to the world? I think you have to have laws against that. So I think there have to be laws against what Snowden did. Did he do it for a higher purpose? Does he have a high moral ground? All of that I think history will judge. But I've sort of tongue-in-cheek said that if I had the choice, I'd put Clapper and Snowden in the same jail cell for about the same period of time. That's not a serious question, but I think it'd be an interesting debate they might have about liberty versus security.

Reason: I guess the question is, would you put a microphone in there?

Rand Paul: No, but they probably could have a reality jail-cell show and that'd probably be a best seller.

No, I think that there has to be some punishment, but I think the other side's been crazy over the top with people who say they want to shoot Snowden, or they want to hang him….I think that one of the things we've tried to promote is a reform that would make things different. Snowden has said he would have tried official channels to reveal this to someone officially, but that the whistleblower statute doesn't apply to contractors. So I actually have an amendment that would try to make that so. So if you're a contractor doing business with an intelligence agency and you find that they're breaking the law—and interestingly, the courts have now said the NSA is breaking the law. It's my other pet peeve with the president on this whole thing. The president accuses me of getting in the way of reform, and it's like, "You could've stopped the program any time you wanted. You did it through executive order, and you're doing it through executive action. We never told you to do this program. In fact, even the authors of the Patriot Act say they never intended to give you this power, and yet you won't stop it until we actually affirmatively tell you to stop it." So I think the president's not quite sincere wanting real reform.

Reason: Speaking of people who want to lock up Edward Snowden in a brig: Lindsey Graham said, as part of his critique of your performance, that you're more scared of the NSA than you are of ISIS. Is that true?

Rand Paul: You know, I think there are people who…you have to consider the source. This is a person who said that he would use censorship if he needed to. This is the same person who said, "Well, when people ask for an attorney, you should tell them to shut up." This is the same person who's also said, "If they ask for a judge just drone 'em." I mean, some of the stuff I think doesn't rise beyond middle school kind of rhetoric. So it's hard to know when to respond to people like that.

But I think ultimately if you want to talk among adults about, "Is ISIS a threat to our country?" Yes. "Is NSA a threat sometimes to our liberty?" Yes. I personally don't think you have to trade one for the other. I don't think you have to trade your liberty for security. I think you can have both. I think the Constitution can be a powerful tool. The Constitution never said we wouldn't go after records of criminals or terrorists. The Constitution just says you have to individualize the suspicion; put a person's name on it. I tell people, "I want to collect more records of terrorists, just less records of innocent Americans."

Reason: If Lindsey Graham became a nominee, which is really likely to happen, would Rand Paul support?

Rand Paul: You know, I'm a Republican, and I will support whoever the Republican nominee is. Fortunately, we have a long way between here and there, and we have a real shot. Most recent CNN poll had us tied for the lead, so we're going to keep fighting for that. But I think ever since I ran for office, I've already said…you know when I ran for the Senate, I said I'm going to support who wins.

Reason: Your pitch is for being a new kind of Republican. Privacy is certainly one of these issues that you think you can pull people who are not traditionally in the Republican field. And even talking about these polls, your head-to-head poll match-ups with Hillary are as good with anybody else that's out there. But you also have to run a primary campaign in a Republican field. So what are some of the biggest issues that are similar to privacy that differentiate you as a new kind of Republican that can pull new constituencies in? And that you will be emphasizing over the coming months?

Rand Paul: We've worked for the last two years, or maybe longer, on criminal justice issues. And I think these do bring new people in. I think that putting someone in jail for 15 years for a drug possession or use or sale crime is ridiculous.

I was in Missouri not too long ago and there was a gentleman there who's been in jail, I think for 25 years, and he has a life sentence for sale of marijuana. And finally the governor just gave him a pardon. The president has given some pardons, also. There are still some people in jail for crack cocaine for, like, 15 years whereas the powder cocaine equivalent would've been six months to a year. I'm for giving those people a second chance.

I think these criminal justice issues do bring some new people, and frankly the Democrats haven't been very good on these issues. Bill Clinton was a big promoter of most of the draconian drug laws that have put people away forever. So I think that giving people a second chance, and understanding that people who make mistakes when they're kids should get another chance, is something that opens our party to a whole new audience that hasn't considered Republicans before.

Reason: There's a lot of talk in Baltimore…murder rates starting to skyrocket in New York and elsewhere. FOX is going overtime these days with… all these criminal justice reform things are now ushering in a new crime wave. How do you respond to people who want to put the brakes on your project there for that reason?

Rand Paul: I don't know that there's really been a lot of criminal justice reform that could be equated with a skyrocketing crime rate. Most of the murder rates, over decades, have actually been going down. There can be a variety of reasons why. Any kind of one-month trend of anything probably isn't much value, statistically.

I do think that one of the biggest problems our cities have, and I saw this with Baltimore the other day, is unemployment in Baltimore, in the inner city, is greater than it was during the Great Depression. So I think one of the debates we need to have in our country is that the War on Poverty, big government, New Deal kind of stuff, with government's going to coddle you from cradle to grave, hasn't really worked, and I don't think people are better off.

I was in Chicago on the south side about a week ago, and it was amazing to me how many people came to me in Englewood, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, one of the poorest neighborhoods in America, came up to me and said, "You know what, when the government tries to give us money, the machine rips it off anyway. The people in the government unions take it all anyway. It's all taken through patronage." And it's interesting. People will write about the fact of how unions often excluded minorities, and were, when they first started, really meant to exclude blacks from the union completely. Many African-Americans still believe, in a very visceral way, that the unions are meant to exclude them from participation, particularly the government unions. And also really, that they prevent the money from ever getting to the source. The money gets passed out as political favoritism but never really gets to the people anyway.