BERKELEY, CA — Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sips a latte and looks over at my mint tea. “What did you get?” he asks.
“They don’t just have ‘coffee’ here,” an aide remarks. “Everything is some kind of special roast.”
“Well, it tastes good,” Paul says, taking another sip and surveying the scene. We’re upstairs at Philz Coffee, in the back, among the red leather couches and sleepless graduate students, lost in their own world.
“I want to be the Republican who will go where no one else does,” Paul says, explaining his visit to Berkeley, which follows recent speeches in Detroit and historically-black Howard University.
He expects a warm welcome on this traditionally hard-left campus when he delivers a speech later today, attacking the latest abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Last week, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, took to the Senate floor to blast the CIA for what she alleges were its efforts to spy on Senate staffers investigating the agency’s overseas interrogation practices after the terror attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
The CIA, for its part, offered a qualified denial, with CIA chief John Brennan saying that “when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
The agency alleges that Senate staffers exceeded the approved scope of their investigation and made copies of materials they were only allowed to read.
Paul has another theory.
“I think the CIA screwed up, and gave more access to the staffers than they intended. They set up a search engine, and it turned out the staff were very good at using it.”
Paul is calling for a new select committee to investigate CIA spying on Congress. He wants it to pursue a broader list of complaints, too. “The whole intelligence community is out of control,” he says.
Paul has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill for reform of the National Security Agency (NSA), whose extensive electronic spying program was revealed by Edward Snowden less than a year ago. There are several other bills pending, he notes.
He says that he spoke this week with Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who asked him where he stood on Sen. Feinstein’s fight with the administration.
“I told him that he has my support if he wants to defend her. But let us have a vote on NSA reform.”
Paul is critical of Sen. Feinstein’s own reform bill, calling it the “window-dressing” bill. He has not spoken to her since coming to her home state, but told me that he walked over to her on the Senate floor and congratulated her on her speech.
I ask him whether he’s concerned that criticizing the CIA might damage its morale and effectiveness. After all, it has been a political football for both parties for the past two administrations.
“What’s damaging is James Clapper lying to Congress,” he says. “This is not a political football. It’s an area where right and left intersect.”
He ticks off a list of intelligence failures: the failure to predict a Russian invasion of the Crimea, the failure to stop the Boston Marathon bombers, and others.
Instead of keeping its eye on real threats, Paul says, “many individual, innocent Americans” are being harmed.
In addition to his legislation, Paul has filed a class-action lawsuit against President Barack Obama over the NSA. Critics have suggested that it is an empty, political gesture, since he may struggle to prove standing to sue in federal court. He is more hopeful.
“This case potentially affects all of America,” he says. “We have a reasonable chance of being heard.”
Today, in Berkeley, he will be.