WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and a group of conservative House members announced plans to bring legal action against the government for large-scale surveillance the National Security Agency has been conducting at a press conference on Thursday.
Paul was accompanied at the Capitol Hill Club by libertarian Reps. Thomas Massie and Justin Amash, Rep. Louie Gohmert, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney, as well as the director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union and a representative from the Campaign for Liberty, his father Ron Paul's group. Newly re-elected Rep. Mark Sanford was also there, standing off to the side, but left early and didn't speak. An aide to Paul said that Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat and ally of Paul on civil liberties issues, had considered coming but had decided not to at the last minute.
Paul specified that the suit would focus on the court order that allows the government to pull all Verizon phone records for calls made in the United States and between the United States and abroad.
"We're here today to announce that we will be challenging the constitutionality of a court order that collects all Americans' cell phone data all of the time," Paul said, calling the order "clearly beyond the scope of the Fourth Amendment."
"If anyone with a cell phone wants to be part of the lawsuit, go to RandPac.com," Paul said, waving his cell phone. He said over 250,000 people had signed up already to be a part of the legal case.
"I want to catch terrorists as much as any American," Paul said. "But what separates us from them is the rule of law. What makes us different from them is that suspects are not beaten to death with tire irons or strung up from the nearest tree."
Paul was hazy on the specific details of the proposed suit.
"The mechanics may not be all completely determined at this point," Paul said. "To marry 250,000 people and I hope millions of people to a lawsuit will be a lot of work."
"I need help and assistance from attorneys to explain to me whether or not and how you can have a lawsuit with this many people," Paul said.
Asked how people could have the standing sue if they couldn't prove their phones had been monitored — for example, if they weren't Verizon customers — Paul referred the question to Laura Murphy of the ACLU.
"We don't have to project that we think this data has been turned over to the government," Murphy said. Because of the Verizon court order, "we can project that we know the data has been turned over to the government."
"It could be and I'll have to see if that works with them," Paul said when asked if his suit would simply piggyback onto the ACLU's lawsuit. The ACLU's suit, ACLU vs. Clapper, is built as a lawsuit on the ACLU's own behalf because it is a Verizon customer.
"Right now we are a portal for people to come and collect and say 'we are unhappy with what the government is doing to our privacy, we would like to join a lawsuit if we can,'" Paul said. He said it would take him a little longer to figure out the specifics.
Paul didn't comment specifically on the secrecy of the FISA court, which issued the Verizon order and which has become a flashpoint for people arguing that the decision-making behind surveillance programs should be more public.
"I think the whole debate should be more public," Paul said. "By looking at that court order, I don't think it tipped off anybody, I think most people suspected this was going on."
Paul said the suit would likely be brought against the government in general.
"We're going to sue over the constitutionality of the FISA court order, I would assume that would be a suit against the government," he said.
The rhetoric of the press conference was mostly subdued save for a brief interjection by former Reagan Administration lawyer Bruce Fein, a fixture at Paul family events, who compared the current government to the days of Caligula in the Roman Empire.