Is Rand Paul Good For Civil Liberties?

Yesterday on Twitter, Radley Balko warned liberals, "Lefties: Before you start fringe-baiting [Kentucky Senate Nominee] Rand Paul, note that he's better on civil liberties than most Democratic senators. And Obama." I responded that Paul was indistinguishable from the rest of the GOP on national security issues, but that's not totally accurate.

The one place where Paul really stands out is in his opposition to the PATRIOT Act, which has been clear and consistent:

Rand Paul seeks to reassert the rights and privileges of the 50 states and over 300 million Americans. The Federal Government must return to its constitutionally enumerated powers and restore our inalienable rights. Rand proposes that America can successfully protect itself against potential terrorists without sacrificing civil liberties. Rand rejects the premise that the Federal Government must be given a blank check in the name of national security.

America can prosper, preserve personal liberty, and repel national security threats without intruding into the personal lives of its citizens.

The "personal lives of its citizens" is the key point. Because while Paul's position on the PATRIOT Act makes him more heterodox than the average Republican, that's mostly where his positive positions on national security end. In an interview with Scott Horton last year, Paul said that "torture is always wrong," but hasn't spoken up on the issue since, and it's unclear whether he views "enhanced interrogation" as torture. 

When it comes to due process for people accused of terrorism, Paul is indistinguishable from the neoconservatives who tried to prevent his rise. Early on, Paul reversed his position favoring Gitmo's closure and issued a statement saying he supported the use of military commissions:

Foreign terrorists do not deserve the protections of our Constitution...These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil. I will always fight to keep Kentucky safe and that starts with cracking down on our enemies.

It's clear from the numbers that most of the detainees who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo were not "our enemies," Of the 800 detainees, the government can only identify 10 percent who they are "certain" went on to engage in terrorist activity afterwards, and independent estimates put the numbers much lower. At best, one can say that the vast majority of those released were released without being convicted, which makes Paul's claim that they are all "thugs" and "enemies" dubious. Paul's Gitmo NIMBYism and support for ineffectual military commissions as a method of trying people he's preemptively declared guilty puts him firmly alongside the likes of Dick and Liz Cheney on due process and terrorism. 

At the nexus of immigration and national security, Paul becomes downright incoherent:

I believe our greatest national security threat is our lack of security at the border. On 9/11, 16 of 19 hijackers were here on ‘legal’ student Visas but were not in school or in the states they were supposed to be in.

The 9/11 terrorists came in through the front door. Ergo, we need to secure the border. What? Paul also supports "a moratorium on Visas from about ten rogue nations or anybody that has traveled to those nations." That's even more extreme that the Obama administration's now-abandoned racial profiling lite policy -- you're a British citizen who went to visit relatives in Pakistan lately? Banned.

It should be said that Paul appears to have a fairly consistent -- if nativist -- constitutional philosophy: The Constitution grants certain inalienable rights to Americans but not to foreigners. That shouldn't be mistaken for Constitutional fidelity, the Constitution distinguishes between "citizens" and "persons" for a reason, and foreigners charged with crimes in the U.S. have always been given the same due process rights as anyone else, precisely because freedom is as much about what government is allowed to do to you as much as it is about what you are allowed to do.

So is Paul better than "most Democratic Senators" or Obama? Outside the
PATRIOT Act, he seems to be your average Republican.  If he wins his
Senate race and teams up with Russ Feingold to reform the PATRIOT Act,
I wouldn't be disappointed -- but I'm not hoping for anything more from
him.

-- A. Serwer

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