Tthe National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had his talk-a-thon (not technically a filibuster yet since he was using the 30 hours of time triggered by filing cloture on the trade bill) on Wednesday. Whereas once he gained kudos and attention for his paranoia about drones dropping bombs on cafes, his effort to rid the country of the entire Patriot Act, not merely the metadata provision, provoked eye rolls and glares. For any United States senator to take such a cavalier attitude toward proven anti-terror measures is distressing; for a presidential candidate it is disqualifying.

He declared, “We should be in open rebellion, saying enough’s enough.” (If he feels that way, perhaps he should resign; his oath of office makes him responsible for defending the Constitution, not “open rebellion.”) You do wonder if voters in Kentucky will find a senator to replace Paul in 2016 who has a modicum of seriousness about the threat from Islamic terrorism. Surely one party or the other has a responsible candidate.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) took on Paul on the floor, pointing out: ” The Supreme Court passed on this a long time ago. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in call data. Again, not the content of calls, not even the personally identifiable information about calls, but the call data — the two numbers called, the date and time of the call and the duration of the call, because we willfully turn it over to our telecom provider. . . . This is not a question of looking at the actual content of calls. And, the Constitution, as ruled by the Supreme Court, doesn’t give anyone a reasonable expectation of privacy in data that the telephone companies have always had — that they can sell for marketing purposes.” He instructed his colleagues: “It is a simple fact that this program has helped either detect plots or conduct investigations after the fact. . . . All the tools that our intelligence professional have work together in concert and to deprive them of this critical tool would lead to attacks on the United States.” Cotton is in good company.

In contrast to Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has given an impassioned defense of metadata gathering:

Bulk metadata includes phone numbers, the time and duration of calls — nothing else. No content of any phone calls is collected. The government is not listening to your phone calls or recording them unless you are a terrorist or talking to a terrorist outside the United States.

Despite recent court rulings, this program has not been found unconstitutional, and the courts have not ordered a halt to the program.

In fact, this program has been found legal and constitutional by at least 15 federal judges serving on the FISA Court on 35 occasions.

There is not a single documented case of abuse of this program. Internet search providers, Internet-based email accounts, credit card companies and membership discount cards used at the grocery store all collect far more personal information on Americans than the bulk metadata program.

Other serious presidential hopefuls have a similar take. Jeb Bush’s spokesman told Right Turn, “In light of the growing terrorist threat to the United States, Governor Bush supports extending responsible intelligence and law enforcement authorities – including the NSA metadata program – in order to help keep us safe against the asymmetric terrorist threats facing our country.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave a speech earlier in the week defending the program, attesting to its usefulness and daring opponents to explain what “problem” they were trying to fix. In an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker argued it was “vitally important” to collect metadata with appropriate safeguards and said he never wanted to look back after an attack and see we could have prevented it had we only had the data at our disposal.

Meanwhile in Iowa, former Texas governor Rick Perry defended intelligence gathering, as the Des Moines Register reported:

The National Security Agency shouldn’t cease bulk monitoring of Americans’ phone activities to identify terrorists, Perry said, but there should be a “balance.”

“I think Americans want to be secure. Americans want to know if there are individuals out there that are being radicalized by these fanatics and that are going to end up in our communities trying to kill our citizens because these people don’t like us. We need to know this. We need to have the ability to go in and be able to identity these individuals. Protecting our civil liberties at the same time? We can do that, I’m quite comfortable.”

Perry also derided criticism of America’s intelligence community, which he called “damaging”: “Those men and women have to know that we trust them, and that we’re going to support them. … I can promise you the bad guys watch that and they know that if our intelligence community can be negatively impacted, then that gives us some opportunities to attack us. So supporting this intelligence community, giving them a clear message from the highest office in this country that you’re going to support them, whether it’s budgetary-wise or otherwise, I think is a very important message.”

In an interview with Hugh Hewitt he argued that “it is very, very important for us to be able to have a technological advantage, and use every advantage that we have to be able to identify these people that would come into our country or would put our allies in jeopardy.” Rather than end metadata gathering he suggested that “if there are agencies or people that are abusing that, they need to be held accountable, and use every bit of the power of this country to punish anyone who is using the Patriot Act in a way that is not appropriate.”

Rubio, Bush, Christie, Walker and Perry are demonstrating the sort of clear-eyed assessment we should demand of a commander in chief. Paul’s continued fear-mongering, disregard for legal precedent (that metadata collection is consistent with the Fourth Amendment) and obliviousness to the facts cast doubt on his fitness to serve in the Senate, let alone take on the job of commander in chief.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), tried paddling his way back to the mainstream by defending the efficacy of the Patriot Act while praising Paul, but his continued support for changes that would hamstring the National Security Agency suggests he is not commander in chief material either. He too has done his share of fear-mongering by suggesting the government is routinely looking at the content of communications. It is shameful behavior for someone who boasts of his legal prowess and Supreme Court advocacy.

This certainly has been a clarifying episode.