BERKELEY — Sen. Rand Paul, a leading critic of the government’s domestic spying program, came to the birthplace of the free-speech movement Wednesday to deliver a searing indictment of the intelligence community and call for a sweeping congressional investigation of its activities.
Addressing a mostly student audience just off the UC Berkeley campus, the Kentucky Republican suggested the nation’s surveillance agencies — “drunk with power” — were running roughshod over the Constitution by prying into the most intimate details of people’s lives.
Accessing financial records under a broad anti-terrorism umbrella, Paul said, the government can tell “whether you drink, whether you smoke, whether you gamble, what books you read, what magazines you read, whether you see a psychiatrist, what medications you take.”
“I oppose this abuse of power with every ounce of energy I have. I believe you have a right to privacy and it should be protected,” Paul said to cheers and applause from the enthusiastic crowd of about 400.
Upon returning to Washington, Paul said, he would call for creating a bipartisan Senate committee modeled after one in the 1970s that examined CIA abuses, to undertake an unfettered look at the conduct of the country’s spy agencies. “It should watch the watchers,” he said.
Paul’s civil libertarian stance and condemnation of domestic surveillance are well known. He filed a lawsuit this year against President Obama and the heads of several intelligence agencies, challenging the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s data-mining program, which for years has swept up troves of information on Americans’ private communications.
The suit is one of several challenging the once-secret program, started under President George W. Bush and defended by the current administration as a lawful and necessary tool to fight terrorism.
Of greater note was the venue that Paul chose, a campus that has been a wellspring of bohemian thought and left-wing politics for generations. More than any other GOP presidential prospect, Paul has worked to broaden the party’s appeal by calling for greater outreach, especially to younger voters — “We need people with tattoos, ponytails and earrings” — and by showing up at places Republicans rarely frequent.
He spoke last year to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he broke with many in his party by endorsing comprehensive immigration reform. A few weeks later, he drew a mixed reception for a speech on civil rights at Washington’s Howard University, historically one of the nation’s top black colleges.
Asked Wednesday whether his appearance at Berkeley was an effort to broaden the GOP’s appeal preparatory to a run for president in two years, Paul did not rule out the possibility. “Maybe,” he said.
Indeed, as vociferous as he was in his criticism of the intelligence community, Paul sometimes seemed at pains to qualify his remarks — the way a White House hopeful might.
“I’m not against the NSA, per se,” he said of the agency at the center of the domestic surveillance controversy. “But I’m for due process to protect your rights.”
Asked whether he considered Edward Snowden — the former NSA contract worker who revealed the domestic spying regimen — to be a traitor or a hero and what punishment, if any, he deserved, Paul repeatedly balked.
“I have mixed feelings, is the bottom line,” he said.
Snowden’s revelations were important and worthy, Paul said, but a constant release of government secrets “would lead to chaos.”
Later, speaking to reporters, Paul said, “It’s not my job to decide what [Snowden’s] punishment should be. But I do think that hanging, shooting, stringing him up from a tree, all these things that have been suggested, are disproportionate to the crime.”