Rand Paul raises specter of MLK to attack President Obama on NSA spying

Opinion

In this combination of file photos, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a peace rally in New York on April 15, 1967, left, and President Barack Obama speaks at an election night party in Chicago after winning a second term in office on Nov. 7, 2012. Inauguration Day coincides with the King holiday, marking what some say is an inextricable tie between the nation's first black president and the civil rights movement. Obama plans to incorporate the legacy of that movement into his inauguration. (AP Photo, File)

In this combination of file photos, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a peace rally in New York on April 15, 1967, left, and President Barack Obama speaks at an election night party in Chicago after winning a second term in office on Nov. 7, 2012. Inauguration Day coincides with the King holiday, marking what some say is an inextricable tie between the nation's first black president and the civil rights movement. Obama plans to incorporate the legacy of that movement into his inauguration. (AP Photo, File)

According to Senator Rand Paul it’s “ironic” that the “first black president” has expanded the powers of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Speaking to an audience at a forum at the University of California, Beckley this week Senator Paul said, “I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA.”

Paul referred to the invasive government spying that civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X endured five decades ago, but Senator Paul should explain to the American people he’s planning to run to be the leader of in 2016, why he thinks President Obama being black is relevant to the current conversation about the NSA.

Last summer, when the latest incarnation of the NSA spying story broke, the creator of the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, David Simon wrote on his site a surprising (to some) partial defense of the NSA spying:

“Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.”

Essentially, Simon’s point is that law enforcement organizations have always invasive surveillance methods to track people of color in the inner city and yet the same civil libertarians attacking the president, may have initially failed to see the connection between NSA spying and the use of wiretaps in the war on drugs long before the Patriot Act.

It’s not ironic that President Obama, who happens to be black, inherited a massive national security infrastructure.  What’s ironic is that Senator Paul, one of the few Republicans talking about the systemic problems with the war on drugs, can’t avoid injecting the president’s race to imply that he more than any of the previous (white) president’s has more a responsibility reform the NSA.

In his post, Simon did touch upon the relevant question that should be asked of the Obama administration, “The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. And it forever will, to a greater and greater extent. And therefore, the present-day question can’t seriously be this: Should law enforcement in the legitimate pursuit of criminal activity pretend that such data does not exist. The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised.”

The disturbing revelations that the NSA could be improperly spying on Americans is a huge issue that requires thoughtful discourse, transparency, and thorough oversight.  This is not the time for petty politics.  Senator Paul’s use of the president’s race to attack the Obama administration for precedent set by George W. Bush and Co. is just another example of how Republicans have struggled the past six years to stick to the policy points in their opposition to the president.

Senator Paul is one of the few Republicans who even mentions the war on drugs as something that needs fixing and often can sound reasonable on privacy issues.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s alright to inject the president’s race into a conversation where it’s not relevant.  Is a black president more responsible for stopping inappropriate NSA spying than a white one?

Furthermore, it should be pointed out how ironic it is for a medical doctor like Senator Rand Paul to oppose a woman’s right to make her own medical choices in consultation with her doctor and without the government requiring a woman to sit through judgmental lectures or unwanted government mandated ultrasounds.

Sure, Senator Paul can get an applause line by holding up his iPhone and saying, “I believe what you do on a cellphone is none of their damn business,” but maybe the junior Senator from Kentucky can apply that same logic to a woman’s body. Senator Paul’s position on choice would criminalize a rape survivor who is impregnated and perhaps many would agree that this is a more intimate violation of privacy than raw cell phone data. What a woman does with her body is not the government’s business either.

Improper NSA surveillance is serious problem that is much bigger than the “first black president.”

The infrastructure responsible for the alleged spying was in place before President Obama and will likely remain in place, though hopefully reformed, once he’s out of office.  This issue is complicated enough that it doesn’t need Senator Paul’s cheap shot on the president invoking race, when it’s not relevant.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.