Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is ready to debate the Fourth Amendment.
The limits on search and seizure just became the hot subject, after new reports in Britain’s The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed last week that the government has been gathering en masse phone and Internet records as part of its efforts to stop terrorism.
Paul—who emerged as a potential 2016 presidential contender with his filibuster on drone usage— deems the data mining “unconstitutional,” even though all three branches of government apparently sanctioned the surveillance. The Tea Partier says the government should receive specific warrants for terrorists, instead of collecting billions of phone records a day.
“I'm going to be seeing if I can challenge this at the Supreme Court level,” Paul told “Fox News Sunday. “I'm going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies, ask your customers to join me in a class action lawsuit. If we get 10 million Americans saying we don't want our phone records looked at then somebody will wake up and say things will change in Washington.”
Paul also intends to sponsor what he calls “The Fourth Amendment Restoration Act” to limit government access to personal records.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) called for further inquiry into the program, saying that the Bill of Rights principles were “sacred” and that the Patriot Act passed after the 9-11 attacks ought to be reopened with restrictions on what the government can do.
“Let's have the debate, let's be transparent, let's open this up. I don't think the American public knows the extent or knew the extent to which they were being surveyed and their data was being collected.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has also endorsed a broader public conversation.
Polling suggests that Americans are less concerned about guarding their privacy when it comes to terrorism, with a recent poll indicating that 78 percent of Americans favor increasing the number of surveillance cameras. In a speech a few weeks ago, Obama indicated that the United States would not remain on a permanent war footing against terrorism.
“[B]attlefields have changed, and technology has evolved,” the president said on May 23. “But our commitment to Constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end.”
Of course, Obama did not discuss ending the government’s electronic surveillance tools, such as the PRISM program that has allegedly tapped into records from Yahoo!, Google, and Facebook, and others.
Such programs were still classified when he spoke. The National Security Agency announced a criminal probe into the leaks the programs.
On Sunday, the source for The Guardian’s reports about the program volunteered his identity to the public—29-year old Edward Snowden, a former CIA technical assistant who has been working for the federal contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the NSA.
With a salary of roughly $200,000 a year and apartment in Hawaii, Snowden recently told his supervisors he needed to take medical leave. He left for Hong Kong, where he has stayed as The Guardian began publishing the material that he provided.
But Obama’s administration has other priorities. This included reaching a budget deal and immigration reform—which looks like an uphill battle in the House with the departure of the conservative Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) from that chamber’s “gang of eight.”
Obama still has to deliver on the health insurance coverage supposedly established under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Federal agencies are finalizing major rules from the 2010 Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulation. His team must fix the IRS, which has fed dark theories of political corruption and incompetence with its targeting of Tea Party-linked nonprofits.
Those priorities could soon be crowded out by a public debate about government surveillance. As the heads of Congress’ intelligence committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) have both described the programs as legal and successful.
The records reportedly included emails and the equivalent from Verizon of phone logs, material that federal officials say helped stop a 2009 attempt to blow up a New York City subway by Najibullah Zazi.
But Udall suspects—based on his knowledge—there are alternatives to preventing terrorist threats that don’t involve such an extensive collection of data.
“I am not convinced that it's uniquely valuable intelligence that we could not have generated in other ways,” Udall said. “So I know these claims are being made, but that's all the more reason to have a debate, to share this information and to determine whether or not we ought to be collecting millions of records every day of Americans' phone calls.”