On the heels of masterminding the letter to Iranian leaders signed by 47 Republican senators warning that a nuclear deal not approved by Congress could be undone by a future president, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is back in the spotlight, this time for his efforts to build a coalition in his caucus to extend portions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire on May 31.
The 37-year-old freshman senator —
the youngest member of the chamber and a member of the Armed Services Committee, and an Iraq war veteran —
is posturing against the libertarian faction of the GOP, particularly Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who would like to repeal the law entirely, Politico reports.
Cotton has been huddling with senior intelligence officials and administration lawyers, according to the website, "to build his case for a clean extension of three expiring provisions," a move that would punt surveillance programs that the intelligence community says are critical to protecting the country.
"Almost every Republican elected last year believes that America is strong and safe when America is leading the world," Cotton said. "And I don't think many Republicans will want to see critical programs expire that will reopen intelligence gaps from the 1990s."
Cotton, who has both undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, is doing his homework on the issue. He told Politico that he's "met with every person from the directors of these agencies down to the newest [employees] who are executing the program, and they're all hardworking Americans who are doing a critical job, who understand the scrutiny they face and have tremendous degrees of safeguards on them."
He has also been instrumental in arranging classified briefings with the 13 freshman senators and the people who run the programs to show them that "there is absolutely no content collected in these programs, there's no personally identifiable information, there's no surveillance of telephone calls."
The revelation by NSA leaker Edward Snowden of government spying programs that allow for the mass collection of Americans' telephone and Internet metadata caused a national and international firestorm. Efforts by Paul and other like-minded legislators and think tanks are underway to get rid of or tweak Section 215 of the law, which includes the three highly controversial provisions involving roving wiretaps, searches of business records and conducting surveillance of lone wolves, people suspected of terrorist-related activities who are not linked to known terrorist groups.
President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act after 9/11 and, in 2011, President Barack Obama signed an extension of it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, have put forth legislation extending the three provisions for 5 1/2 years, but a "contingent of vocal libertarians" in the House want to see limits set on the bulk collection of data in addition to some other reforms, according to Politico. Obama also wants additional civil liberty protections put in place.
"Moreover, a number of Democrats and some Republicans want further safeguards, including to shine a light on telephone companies' participation in domestic surveillance and reform the secret court created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," the site reports.
Cotton's bold moves and willingness to take a stand even when it's unpopular have garnered the attention of leaders in his party.
"Tom Cotton is ahead of the mainstream of Republicans on foreign policy thinking," Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol told The New York Times
for a profile the newspaper wrote on Cotton last month. "Most of those running in 2016 will sound a lot more like Cotton than Rand Paul."
The Times story noted that lawmakers who served with Cotton in the House remarked about his "intellect and the fact that he showed little willingness to compromise on legislation, even when the leadership wanted him to."
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