Rand Paul vs. the PATRIOT Act

The Senate has found a new leading critic of the PATRIOT Act: Kentucky's Rand Paul.

Paul doesn't agree with many of his colleagues on a host of issues--he wants to end all foreign aid, for instance, and supports congressional term limits--but as debate has heated up over the past week about the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions, Paul has been the only senator to speak out against extending them.

In a letter to his colleagues today, Paul asked members of the Senate to oppose extending the provisions:

I object to these warrantless searches being performed on United States citizens.  I object to the 200,000 NSL searches that have been performed without a judge's warrant.

I object to over 2 million searches of bank records, called Suspicious Activity Reports, performed on U.S. citizens without a judge's warrant.

As February 28th approaches, with three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act set to expire, it is time to re-consider this question:  Do the many provisions of this bill, which were enacted in such haste after 9/11, have an actual basis in our Constitution, and are they even necessary to achieve valid law-enforcement goals?

Six days ago, Paul released a web video outlining his constitutional opposition to the entire law, comparing PATRIOT Act authorities to violations of property rights in the Colonies:

Paul is the only senator publicly advocating this stance.

Several options are floating around the Senate: extend all the expiring provisions until December, as called for by a bill that passed the House last night; extend them until 2013, as Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to do; extend them until 2013 but require Justice Department audits and sunset the provision for National Security Letter subpoenas, as Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is calling for; or extend all the provisions permanently, as Republican Senate leaders want to do. No other senator has made a point of rejecting all these options and opposing any extension of these PATRIOT Act provisions--much less calling for the entire law to be revisited.

Ironically, Paul has taken up the mantle left behind by a Democrat: Sen. Russ Feingold (Wisc.), a staunch supporter of civil liberties, was defeated in November by Sen. Ron Johnson (R), a tea partier who hails from the movement that also helped elect Paul. Feingold was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act when it passed in October 2001. (Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) did not vote.)

Three essential provisions of the act will expire Feb. 28. They grant the federal government wiretapping authority, subpoena power over business records and other documents, and authority to conduct surveillance on suspected "lone wolves" not known to be connected to any terrorist organization.

Tea party lawmakers have occupied prime space in this debate: When the House failed to pass an extension last week, members of the Tea Party Caucus joined with Democrats to scuttle it. Last night, the House passed the same extension.

It's tough to know where other individual senators stand on these provisions. The last time they were set to expire, in February 2010, the Senate extended them for a year via voice vote--which means no senator objected to their extension, and no recorded vote was taken. Leahy had attempted to attach essentially the same restrictions to last year's extension, without success.

Other senators probably feel the same way Paul feels. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), for instance, opposed reauthorization along with Feingold in the Judiciary Committee last year but, like Feingold, didn't object to final passage.

But you don't see other senators sending letters, putting out press releases, or generally speaking out against the law's existence--not in the same way Paul has since taking up the anti-PATRIOT Act crusade.

The Senate will be out of session next week, with these provisions set to expire the following Monday.

That means this Friday could be the deadline for senators to pick a side, and for Paul to find out whether his push has gained any traction.