Unfortunately for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), he chose to grab the spotlight on foreign policy amid several foreign policy crises that demonstrate the folly of his philosophy. It’s even more unfortunate because he is giving the appearance of someone lacking a basic understanding of national security. And it’s happening a lot.
Take his remark on spying in Russia: “It appears as though we didn’t have very good intelligence as to what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was doing. I think we need to do a little more spying on the Russians and a lot less spying on Americans. We just shouldn’t collect all Americans’ records, and I think sometimes it distracts us from the things we should do.”
Let’s start with the basics. The National Security Agency does not, as he intimates here and asserted at Conservative Political Action Conference, “spy” on the content of communications absent individualized suspicion. They collect metadata. Moreover, if he is concerned about manpower and distracting the intelligence community, he should reconsider big defense cuts and stop creating hoops for our intelligence agencies to jump through.
Just about everything else in that statement is wrong. To begin with, a former senior level intelligence official told me, “The American intelligence community can walk AND chew gum. The skills, tools and language to do the one task (the 215 program) are quite different than those needed to do the other (anticipate Russian actions).” As for Russia, he explained, sounding a bit exasperated a United States senator didn’t know what he was talking about, “Fundamentally since Russian forces were already in the Crimea, there likely would have been little tactical warning of an imminent move. At its heart, the challenge was less about collection than it was about analysis: what did we expect Putin, artificially boxed in by his own Olympics, to do upon returning to Moscow after the games and after the humiliation of Kiev.”
Reuel Marc Gerecht, who used to work at the CIA, agrees that Rand Paul sounds confused: “Analysis is the problem, not the absence of spying via classical espionage, which is often overrated by outsiders, or digital surveillance, which flows in wide rivers into Fort Meade and rarely produces an analytical bonanza that could not have been produced by an educated mind reading the local press (or in Senator Paul’s case, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal).”
When Rand Paul has chosen to pronounce on policy, he has sounded incoherent. Consider this from Patrick Brennan at National Review:
Paul “would reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic, only this time, I would make sure the Europeans pay for it.” This makes no sense: Poland and the Czech Republic could never dream of affording the cost of missile defense and were politically reluctant about accepting it for free. But let’s assume in some other universe, Europe as a whole wanted to pay for the system — except that President Obama replaced what was going to be placed in Eastern Europe with other missile-defense systems, which are slightly less effective but noticeably less costly and less likely to antagonize Russia when we were trying to. If Paul had any desire to implement missile defense in Europe in line with his stated goals, he might well have done what the Obama administration did.
Paul the Younger also wants to end loans and aid to Ukraine. Huh? “This is how Paul wants to support an incredibly fragile pro-Western government running out of foreign currency and therefore teetering on the brink of default.”
I’ve resisted the suggestion that Rand Paul doesn’t know much, if anything, about national security. He is a U.S. senator and has access to the media, Senate staff, administration briefings, outside experts and colleagues. But sometimes ignorance is deliberate. This might be such a case. If so, his problem is not merely one of ideology.