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Domestic Surveillance Re-Emerges in Senate, on the Trail

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A debate over domestic surveillance that appeared resolved months ago is getting new life in the Senate — and on the 2016 presidential trail.  

Speaking to college students Thursday at George Washington University, presidential hopeful Rand Paul called "bullshit" on the idea there should be expanded screening of phone records in the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks in France. The Republican senator from Kentucky was responding to a proposal Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., announced Tuesday that would extend the timeline for phasing out the government's bulk collection of telephone records through January 2017. It is backed by Paul's opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and the issue has quickly become a hot button in the battle for the GOP nomination.  

"I didn't think at the time we should deprive our intelligence professionals of an effective and constitutional program," Cotton said in an interview of his June 2 vote against the USA Freedom Act. "Now, I don't think that we should rush into a new and unproven system until the president himself can say that this will be equally effective."  

Rubio said in a statement he's backing the effort "because it will provide the intelligence community one more essential tool to help law enforcement connect the dots of terrorist communications, uncover threats against the United States and our allies, and help keep terrorists out of the United States."  

Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is among the GOP lawmakers who advocated for the USA Freedom Act, which overhauled the National Security Agency's program and set a sunset for bulk collection. Speaking at a Washington Examiner forum Wednesday evening, Cruz said he saw "very little chance" of Cotton's proposal gaining traction, even in the wake of the Paris attacks.  

"I believe in the Constitution," Cruz said. "I've spent my whole life fighting to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and the federal government has no right to be seizing, collecting and holding the phone metadata of hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens."  

In an interview Wednesday, before his remarks at GW, Paul pushed back against the proposal, noting that the current system of Patriot Act authority has not yet been phased out.  

"I think they misunderstand the situation," he said. "We've had bulk collection of phone records with no suspicion and no warrant for the last several years. There's no evidence that we've stopped or caught anybody. The Paris attack occurred while we were still doing bulk collection."  

"In France," Paul added, "they have probably a program in place that's a thousand times more intrusive than we have, and they still weren't able to stop this or see it coming."  

Asked Thursday to respond to Paul's criticism, Cotton said the current collection practices should be maintained at least until he's assured that a successor program will work.  

"There's no question that the NSA's current metadata program has helped disrupt or intercept terrorist plots," Cotton said. "Is it a silver bullet? No, but you can't say that about human intelligence or imagery intelligence or any other kind of intelligence. They all work in harmony together the same way the instruments in a ... symphony do."  

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