WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama moves to rein in NSA data collection, Sen. Marco Rubio remains resolute.
"A lot of it's been completely mischaracterized," Rubio said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this week that seemed to take a jab at Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016 GOP presidential primary rival, who is mounting a populist campaign on the issue.
"Some of this paranoia that's being spun out there goes beyond the issue at hand," Rubio said.
The Florida Republican and Senate Intelligence Committee member said: "There is no evidence that these programs have been systematically abused. And there are significant safeguards built in. You can't just go after someone's metadata. You have access to it, but you can only truly use it and gain access to a phone bill if they go through a judge. Then what you're getting is a phone bill and the information contained therein. So really, the debate is why are they collecting it in the first place?
"Well, because you want to have quick access. Understand that when you're dealing in the terrorist realm, as opposed to the law enforcement realm, sometimes you need to move quickly to prevent something. If it's found that any individual is going after these records outside of the court, that person should be prosecuted and put in jail. But if you wipe out the program and we have the ability to deduce an attack is being planned … and we hamstring ourselves, I think that could one day lead to horrifying consequences."
Rubio has sketched out a firm stance on national security and foreign policy, finding himself to the right of some fellow Republicans who have elevated libertarian thinking.
Paul has been especially vocal about the NSA, tapping into an issue that could broaden his appeal. He appeared this month before a receptive student audience in Berkeley, Calif., and said the surveillance agencies are "drunk with power."
"I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA," Paul said. "Certainly J. Edgar Hoover's illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause. Now if President Obama were here, he would say he's not J. Edgar Hoover, which is certainly true. But power must be restrained because no one knows who will next hold that power."
On that principle, Rubio agreed — to a point.
"There has been a history in this country of people in government abusing intelligence information, certainly the FBI and instances in the '70s with the CIA and others. If there is evidence of that now or any time in the future, that's illegal. And that should be prosecuted. But I don't think the solution to the problem is to wipe out the capability. Perhaps the most important obligation the federal government has is our national security, and in the 21st century you have not just nation states but nonstate actors who are constantly plotting to attack Americans. We cannot unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence-gathering capabilities. … it makes the country less safe."