In this image from Senate video, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a Republican presidential contender, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2015.

In this image from Senate video, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a Republican presidential contender, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2015. Senate TV via AP

What Is Rand Paul's NSA Endgame?

With days to go before the Patriot Act expires, the Kentucky Republican could kill the agency’s domestic-phone spying — or save it.

Rand Paul is the greatest threat since Edward Snowden to the National Security Agency's mass-surveillance regime.

Unless he is its best friend.

The Kentucky senator and GOP presidential candidate has succeeded so far in thwarting attempts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reauthorize expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, the law that vastly expanded the intelligence community's spying powers and that is currently facing its most serious challenge since its adoption in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But with just days to go before those provisions lapse on June 1, many pro-reform congressional staffers and privacy advocates are wary of Paul's all-or-nothing gambit.

The theory goes that Paul could give leverage to McConnell and other defense hawks who want to weaken reform efforts. With the Obama administration warning that critical intelligence tools far broader than the NSA metadata program will "go dark," potentially jeopardizing the safety of the American public, senators could feel more pressure to pass something quickly in order to fill the national-security vacuum.

"There is a real risk that the rhetoric, the spin on the situation will be that it is a crisis, a national-security problem that we need to fix by passing something quickly," said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "And what they pass may well turn to be weaker than the Freedom Act."

Paul last week voted against advancing the USA Freedom Act, a House-passed reform package that would extend the expiring Patriot Act provisions but with a host of reforms, including an effective end to the NSA's bulk gathering of U.S. call data. The measure fell three votes shy of clearing the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold needed to move forward.

He then worked in tandem with Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Martin 

Heinrich to block McConnell's rapid-fire attempts to earn unanimous consent to adopt increasingly shorter extensions of the expiring powers, from one week all the way down to one day, prompting the majority leader to reconvene the Senate on Sunday, May 31—just hours before the Patriot Act authorities are set to die.

But while Wyden and Heinrich support the Freedom Act as worthwhile reform, Paul doesn't think it goes far enough. He's vowed to block any attempts to extend the Patriot Act's spying powers unless he gets simple-majority votes on two amendments he's pushing—something Republican leadership was unwilling to allow last week.

And in a Senate where all 100 votes are needed to do anything quickly, Paul essentially has the power to prevent any legislation—including the Freedom Act—from going forward on Sunday, thereby forcing a full expiration of Patriot Act provisions on death watch.

The uneasiness surrounding Paul's strategy puts many privacy advocates in a bind. His efforts—two years after the Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of the NSA's activities—are long overdue, they say. There's just that risk.