Like most people, former representative Ron Paul (R., Texas) learned the details of the federal government’s far-reaching surveillance program when he read about it over the weekend. But as someone who has spent the last several decades warning of government’s encroachment on civil liberties, he wasn’t exactly shocked by the revelations.
“The thought of our government doing this wasn’t a bit of a surprise,” he tells National Review Online. “I assumed they had been doing it. They’ve had the authority to do it. I said that’s what the Patriot Act would end up doing.”
At the very least, the official documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former intelligence officer and Ron Paul donor, offered “credible evidence” that confirmed Paul’s suspicions. “I didn’t know the details before,” he says. “My immediate reaction was, you know, we’re supposed to be shocked by this?”
Surely Paul must feel vindicated, after years of having his concerns largely dismissed by politicians in both parties. Right?
“I never think in terms of vindication — ‘yeah, see, I told you so’ — that doesn’t go over very well anyway,” he says. In fact, it “saddens” him, to some degree, to have his concerns validated by such troubling news.
“Vindication? I think somebody else can use that term, but I don’t,” he adds.
It would be counterproductive, Paul says, for him and other full-fledged civil libertarians to play a prominent role in the national conversation that is likely to emerge in the wake of the revelations.
“I think individuals like myself are the worst ones to be out front right now and saying ‘Alright go do this and this; I told you this would happen,’” he says. “It has to be other individuals saying ‘You know, I was mistaken, I’m going to change my ways, and do something differently.’”
He’s concerned about the fate of Snowden, who was last seen in Hong Kong after fleeing the country several weeks ago, and worries that the 29-year-old whistleblower might come to be viewed as a “traitor” for his actions. “If you have a large government, or an empire, a dictatorial government, if you tell the truth, it’s treason, and that has to be reversed,” he says. “I’m concerned about whether the publicity is so strong that the people who are sympathetic will have to be silenced because they find out people are starting to believe, ‘Oh, he’s a communist defector and that’s why he’s in China.’”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), among others, did not respond favorably to the leak. “I view Mr. Snowden’s actions not as one of patriotism but potentially a felony,” Graham said via Twitter on Monday. John Yoo, former legal adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote that Snowden “should go to jail, as quickly and for as long as possible.” The Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation.
However, Snowden has his fair share of defenders. An online petition asking President Obama to pardon Snowden has accumulated more than 26,000 signatures since Sunday. Paul is supportive. “I mean, it’s early, but from everything I’ve heard, I’d say it’s a great idea,” he says. “The question is really, who are the criminals? The people who destroy our Constitution, or the people who tell us the truth about the individuals who are destroying our Constitution?”
Paul seems cautiously optimistic that the American people are “waking up” to the dangers of big government. And just like concern over the military’s drone program — spearheaded by his son, Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) — was able to galvanize Americans of all political stripes, the public backlash over the government’s surveillance regime could spur politicians of both parties to action.
“It adds momentum, but whether or not this will be the beginning of wisdom is another question,” he says. “I think a large majority of the America people are saying Obama has gone too far, but it’s a bipartisan deal. Obama didn’t invent this, he just made it worse.”
They could start by repealing “bad laws,” like the Patriot Act, but that will hardly suffice. “Ultimately the restraints have to come from people of character who just refuse to go along with these programs,” he says. “You’ve got to change people’s minds. You don’t have to change the majority [in Congress], you have to change people who write in magazines, and get on the Internet and on T.V. Prevailing attitudes are important.”
He realizes that many politicians, and perhaps a sizable portion of the American public, don’t share his views, and are (at best) indifferent to the notion of a government that can track nearly all forms of communication.
“[Lindsey Graham] doesn’t feel like he’s undermining anything, he thinks this is the proper position,” Paul says. “Some people think governments are there to make us perfectly safe, and others believe that governments are there to protect our liberties. Governments can’t make us safe. If they have that job of making us perfectly safe and secure, you end up with very little freedom.”
“Time will tell” which view wins out, he adds. “But no harm can come from knowing the truth.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.