Rand Paul, at Berkeley, seeks common ground on domestic spying

Rand Paul, taking questions

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul fields questions following his talk at International House. (Photos by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul came to UC Berkeley Wednesday to denounce government spying and secrecy, but his most resonant message may have been the Kentucky Republican’s willingness to venture into what some might consider enemy territory.

What he found at International House, though, was a highly sympathetic audience — thanks, presumably, to the first-come, first-served ticketing system used by the student-run Berkeley Forum, which sponsored the event in collaboration with the Berkeley College Republicans — some of whom wore T-shirts with slogans including “Stand with Rand” and “I ♥ Ron Paul,” Rand’s father, the former Texas congressman who was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 1988, and who campaigned for the White House as a Republican in 2008 and again in 2012.

It was an audience that seemed to share his call for “a new GOP,” laughing when he likened the Republican Party’s problems to those of Domino’s Pizza, which, Paul said, eventually had to admit its crust “sucked.” In a nod to the country’s changing demographics — and to his own efforts at outreach to voting blocs that tend to support Democrats — he said his party would need to “evolve, adapt or die.”

Paul, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, white shirt and red tie, spoke from behind a lectern, flanked by Teleprompters, for 20 minutes before taking a handful of questions submitted by audience members.

While he touched briefly, in response to a question, on economics — he supports a flat income tax, and lower taxes “for everyone” — Paul steered clear of Republican red-meat subjects like abortion, Obamacare and gay marriage. Asked if he believed the federal government should have any role in supporting public higher education, he said, “I believe in general, the more local control, the better.” He wouldn’t end Pell grants for students from low-income families, he added, but said his bigger concern was opportunities for those who graduate.

“The biggest problem, really, isn’t right now getting an education,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of grants, people are getting into school, that’s not the problem. The problem you need to think through is not getting a grant and getting into school, it’s getting a job when you get out of school and how you’re going to pay your loans back.”

He suggested reducing tax burdens as one way to help college graduates pay off their student loans.

For the most part, he focused on staking out his position — unique among likely Republican candidates for president — as a champion of privacy, and a staunch opponent of secret government spying. He condemned both the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance of U.S. citizens, as revealed by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden, and CIA spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staff, as alleged recently in a floor speech by that committee’s chair, California’s Dianne Feinstein.

Paul at the podium

Paul: GOP must “evolve, adapt, or die.”

“I’m here to tell you that if you own a cellphone, you’re under surveillance,” Paul said, brandishing his own smartphone for emphasis. “I’m here to tell you that the NSA believes that equal protection means that Americans should be spied upon equally — including Congress. Instead of equal protection, to them it’s equal disdain.”

In a talk that included references to Fahrenheit 451, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Henry David Thoreau and Benjamin Franklin, he found common cause not just with Senate colleagues from across the aisle like Feinstein and Ron Wyden of Oregon, both Democrats, and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, but with Snowden himself.

“We have a right to the truth, we deserve the truth, and we demand the truth from our officials,” Paul declared in one of several applause lines, comparing Snowden to James Clapper, the federal director of national intelligence, who he said “lied” to Congress about the extent of domestic spying prior to Snowden’s revelations.

“Clapper lied in the name of security,” he said. “Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy.”

Paul has filed a class-action lawsuit against President Obama and the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies over the NSA surveillance program, which began in 2001 under President Bush.

“I find it ironic that the first African American president has, without compunction, allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA,” he said, noting former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s use of such power to investigate Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders during the 1960s.

That angle of attack was notable — critics might say ironic — for Kentucky’s junior U.S. senator, who has come under fire for asserting the theoretical right of Woolworth’s, as a private company, to refuse counter service to King — and whose father used the occasion of the Civil Rights Act’s 40th anniversary in 2004 to denounce it on the floor of the U.S. House as “a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract.”

The reference to Obama seemed to have been dialed back since earlier in the day, when he told the New York Times — in what was billed as a preview of his Berkeley talk — that the president, by dint of his race, “ought to be a little more conscious of the fact of what has happened with the abuses of domestic spying.”

But the issue of government overreach transcends partisan politics, said Paul, a Tea Party favorite who recently won his second consecutive CPAC straw poll, an indication of his cachet with the Republican right.  He promised to push for a bipartisan congressional panel — akin to the so-called Church Committee, which reined in intelligence-gathering abuses in the 1970s after the Watergate scandal — to “watch the watchers.”

See video of the event here.