The defense hawks are on the rise in the Republican presidential field, defending the Patriot Act just as Congress prepares for a make-or-break debate over the future of the NSA’s phone-snooping program.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have sided with the hawks, saying the world is getting more dangerous, and the ability to suss out terrorist plots demands the kinds of powers the government has claimed in the Patriot Act, including bulk collection of records of Americans’ behavior.
Fighting a lonely battle against them is Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who says it’s time for the Patriot Act powers to expire.
The rest of the likely Republican field is trapped in between the two poles, calculating the politics and political ramifications of siding with the hawks or the civil libertarians.
The libertarians say they fear the hawks are winning.
“In a post-ISIS world, I think a lot of Republicans are inching in the way of Sen. Tom Cotton and away from Sen. Rand Paul,” said Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of libertarian magazine Reason, alluding to the divide in the GOP. “Rand Paul is essentially surrounded and outnumbered on the issue.”
For the four Republican senators in the field — three of them announced candidates — the issue will hit home quickly. The snooping powers provision of the Patriot Act is set to expire June 1, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, last week introduced legislation to extend bulk collection powers through 2020.
Mr. Rubio, an announced candidate, has said the U.S. “cannot afford to ignore another lesson of 9/11 and curtail intelligence-gathering capabilities.”
Mr. Graham said last week that the nation’s ability to “monitor foreign fighters who have Western passports and access to our country is being challenged unlike any time I have seen.”
“So the last thing I want to do is reduce those capabilities,” said Mr. Graham, who is pondering a White House bid.
The bulk-collection powers of the Patriot Act were exposed by former federal contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting and storing five years’ worth of records of Americans’ phone calls, including numbers involved and time and duration of the calls. The information is queried when the government says it has reason to believe a number is important to a terrorist investigation.
The NSA says there haven’t been any serious abuses, but civil rights overseers say the information hasn’t been particularly useful to stopping any attacks either, and they have recommended that the program be shut down.
Caught in the middle are those such as Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and presidential candidate who in the past called for changes to the Patriot Act but whose spokesman this month declined to say where he stands on the renewal debate.
Mr. Welch said he will be looking at Mr. Cruz as a barometer for where Republicans are on the issue.
“It will be interesting to see,” Mr. Welch said. “He is a pretty canny operator. He detects open space in certain debates that he can occupy.”
Representatives for other likely Republican contenders, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, did not respond to emails seeking comment.
President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act — officially known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act — less than two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Key provisions of the bill deal with roving wiretaps, tracking of suspected “lone wolf” terrorists and empowering law enforcement officials with the ability to obtain records that they see as relevant to an investigation after securing an order from a federal court.
The bill passed the Senate by a 98-1 vote, with support from Mr. Graham as well as then-Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. It passed the House on a 357-66 vote.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Graham and Mr. Santorum also voted for a four-year extension of the law in 2006, as did then-Rep. Bobby Jindal, who is now governor of Louisiana and is considering a bid for the Republican White House nomination.
A spokesman for Mr. Jindal did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesman for Mr. Santorum.
In 2011, the House passed another four-year extension by a 250-153 vote. The Senate approved it by a vote of 72-23.
Mr. Rubio did not vote in 2011, and Mr. Paul opposed the bill, asking on the floor of the upper chamber, “Have we not gone too far?
“Are we so afraid that we are willing to give up all of our liberty in exchange for security?” Mr. Paul said at the time. “[Benjamin] Franklin said: If you give up your liberty, you will have neither. If you give up your liberty in exchange for security, you may well wind up with neither.”
This month, Mr. Paul ramped up his opposition again.
“I will oppose reauthorization of the Patriot Act,” Mr. Paul said.
He took to Twitter over the weekend to take aim at the Patriot Act, vowing to “end all illegal domestic spying programs,” and took a shot at Jeb Bush, saying, “Sadly, one GOP candidate thinks the NSA’s violation of your rights is ‘very important.’ Tell him he is wrong.’”
Mr. Bush is likely to take the most heat over the Patriot Act because it was his elder brother, George W. Bush, who as president signed it into law and who began some of the bulk-collection activities that have soured so many Americans.
Jeb Bush recently drove home his support in an interview with the “Michael Medved Show,” saying Mr. Obama’s continuation of the NSA snooping program is “the best part of the Obama administration.”
“Even though he never admits it, there has been a continuation of a very important service, which is the first obligation of our national government, which is to keep us safe,” Mr. Bush said. “And the technology that now can be applied to make that so, while protecting civil liberties, [is]there, and he’s not abandoned them even though there was some indication that he might.”