United States Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) blasted the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs during an interview over the weekend by calling the NSA’s tactics “fundamentally unconstitutional.”
Sen. Paul, a devout libertarian and long-time critic of the NSA, told Fox News Sunday host John Roberts that the Supreme Court should weigh in on the ever-escalating scandal surrounding the US spy agency’s practice of collecting vast troves of intelligence, including data pertaining to American citizens.
More than two months after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden was first attributed with leaking documents to the media showing the surveillance capabilities of the NSA, the topic remains one of utmost contention among lawmakers and the public alike. In the wake of Mr. Snowden’s latest revelation, though, new questions are being raised with regards to what oversight practices if any could be used to keep the NSA in check.
Last week, new documents attributed to Mr. Snowden showed that the NSA violated its own privacy standards upwards of thousands of times per year. Weighing in with Fox News, Sen. Paul suggested there’s little this side of a Supreme Court decision that would keep the NSA operating under the rules of the US Constitution if it continues its current practices.
“I think that the president fundamentally misunderstands the constitutional separation of powers because the checks and balances are supposed to come from independent branches of government,” Sen. Paul told Roberts. “So, he thinks that if he gets some lawyers together from the NSA and they do a PowerPoint presentation and tell him everything is okay, that the NSA can police themselves. But one of the fundamental things that our Founders put in place was they wanted to separate police power from the judiciary power. So, they didn't want police to write warrants -- and the NSA are a type of police. They wanted a judiciary, an independent, open judiciary, responsive to the people with open debate in public.”
“So, I think the constitutionality of these programs need to be questioned and there needs to be a Supreme Court decision that looks at whether or not what they're doing is constitutional or not,” he said.
And although supposed oversight measures are already in place to monitor the functions of the NSA, Sen. Paul said those discussions are one-sided and leave little room for argument.
“If you were to go sit down in a room and the NSA tells you why they're doing all these things correctly, you have no means of challenging that. You have no means of alternative information,” he said.
Referencing the latest Snowden leak showing how that oversight has fallen short, Sen. Paul said that that information — and undoubtedly much more — would never had been disclosed had an NSA whistleblower not opened up. Even if the NSA is asked to undergo further audits, however, the lawmaker cautioned that the report leaked last week by Snowden suggests its best if an outside source handles that operation.
“I think the whole program needs to be reviewed but it can't be an internal audit,” Sen. Paul said. ““The only way to find justice is you have to hear both sides. So, there really needs to be a discussion from people who are a little bit more skeptical of the NSA in an open court I think before the Supreme Court on this -- on this program,” he added.
“I think it would be better with more oversight but there are some things that they're doing that I fundamentally think are unconstitutional.”
In particular, Sen. Paul suggested that the NSA’s habit of asking telecom providers to hand over metadata records for millions of customers on a regular basis does not fall in line with what America’s forefather envisioned when they authored the constitutional amendment that protects US citizens against unlawful searches.
“Our Founding Fathers, when they wrote the Fourth Amendment, they said a single warrant goes towards a specific individual and what you want to look for. You ask a judge and you say John Smith we think is doing this. We have probable cause to think that he's involved with a crime and you get a warrant,” he said. “The Constitution doesn't allow for a single warrant to get a billion phone records. You know, they have a warrant that says, we want all of Verizon's phone calls, all of AT&T's phone calls, all of et cetera, et cetera, they basically I believe, probably, are looking at all the cell phone calls in America every day.”
Following the senator’s remarks, Rep. Peter King (R-New York) dismissed his comments as a "grab bag of misinformation and distortion.” Speaking to Roberts of the NSA’s spotty oversight record, Rep. King said the instances of errors as discovered in the leaked audit suggest that while thousands of mistakes may happen annually, that figure is just a small representation of everything that’s being collected.
"If you have a 99.99 percent batting average, that's better than most media people do, most politicians do," King said. "I have tremendous respect for Gen. [Keith] Alexander and the whole NSA. This whole tone of snooping and spying we use, I think it's horrible. I think it's really a smear and a slander of good, patriotic Americans."
Both Sen. Paul and Rep. King have been reported to be considering potential campaigns for the White House ahead of the 2016 presidential election.