Rand Paul isn't exactly known as a "liberal sissy"; and he isn't squeamish when it comes to enforcing U.S. world interests. But last week, the Republican senator from Kentucky and potential presidential candidate made a name for himself as a pioneer of privacy advocacy and as a civil rights activist. "I plan on doing everything humanly possible to try to stop the Patriot Act," said the 52-year-old to news channel CNN, and he kept his word. On Saturday following dramatic debate, background political haggling, and a nearly 11 hour speech by Paul, the Senate broke without extending the Patriot Act or ratifying its successor, the Freedom Act. The unfair, unsubstantiated mass surveillance of American phones is about to end. In tow, a lot of other programs might soon have to be shut down. Instead of the required 60 votes for the slightly modified and renamed Freedom Act, only 57 were mustered.
Paul doesn't want to give up; he's making a front for the final assault. Next Sunday, the Senate will meet in an emergency session to once again find a solution to the problem. "With your help we can end illegal NSA spying once and for all" he tweeted to his party colleagues.
Nothing has worked out so far. Contrary to the hopes of a handful of powerful Republican senators to renew the law, the Patriot Act couldn't be extended without alteration. The Patriot Act authorizes the U.S. intelligence community, among other things, to record and evaluate the source and target number of each telephone call within the United States. But only until May 31, 2015.
The version of the act supported and softened by Barack Obama, the Freedom Act, also fell through. The version sees a modification of "Section 215," which is regarded as justification for mass surveillance that has also been ruled unconstitutional by a senior appeals court. The Freedom Act would continue to collect data but leave the data within the computers of telephone companies. Data associated with numbers known to associate with terrorists would need to be requested individually. The powerful civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation has long supported the Freedom Act, but the ruling of the appeals court changed their opinion.
Even with a desperate attempt by Republican Party leader Mitch McConnell, a quickly cobbled together two month extension for the law also failed Saturday night. Now confusion reigns. Suddenly the complete and unspectacular end of monitoring programs after years of controversy is just around the corner if a political miracle doesn't take place on Sunday. The National Security Agency is already prepared to pull the plug on operations punctually at midnight on May 31.
NSA Divides Parties and Creates Unfamiliar Juxtapositions
Edward Snowden threw himself into the mix via live chat from a distant Moscow on Reddit. "It represents a sea change from a few years ago, when intrusive new surveillance laws were passed without any kind of meaningful opposition or debate. Whatever you think about Rand Paul or his politics," wrote the man who brought the whole discussion to the table with his information leaks, "it's important to remember that when he took the floor to say 'no' to any length of reauthorization of the Patriot Act, he was speaking for the majority of Americans — more than 60 percent of whom want to see this kind of mass surveillance reformed or ended."
The NSA problem divides possible domestic presidential candidates and kindles similarities that were before unthinkable. It is a campaign issue that has so far been discussed behind closed doors. Candidates now elaborate. Republican hardliners Rand Paul and Ted Cruz welcomed the court's decision to "Section 215" as a victory for hundreds of millions of innocent American citizens. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton welcomed the change in a tweet, and Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham reject the changes to surveillance.
Even on Friday before the failed votes in Congress, potential candidate Jeb Bush brought himself into the spotlight as a proponent of surveillance. At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, he announced that there was "no evidence" that the Patriot Act had violated the civil rights of anyone. On the contrary: The law attributable to his brother George W. Bush is "definitely" an integral part of contemporary foreign policy.
But more and more politicians and citizens in the U.S. are seeing things differently. Much is at stake, especially for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Simply nothing has been accomplished when opposing Barack Obama, and the Republican Party has yet again denied him obedience. For the Democrats, the situation is also unpleasant. They are losing their authority in data privacy and civil rights, one of their central campaign stumps, in a stealthy coup of ideals by Republicans. Barack Obama never managed to overturn the extensive espionage laws of the Bush era — or he never wanted to. Now the Republicans will take the mantle for themselves. One more reason for Barack Obama's former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to distance herself from him — assuming it's not already too late.