Rand Paul on wrong side of spying reform

Never easy to pin down, Kentucky's protean Sen. Rand Paul is altering his positions in more dramatic ways as the 2016 race for president nears.

His new eagerness to take on militants in Syria and Iraq is a case in point. Paul is introducing a declaration of war, despite his earlier insistence that the United States should not try to police the world.

We thought, though, that Paul would never stray from defending Americans' privacy rights against dragnet government snooping.

Until last week.

His vote against even debating a bill containing important reforms to National Security Agency surveillance practices came as a shock.

The bill fell just two votes short of the 60 needed to clear the procedural hurdle, so Paul's vote could have made a difference.

The senator's office is casting Paul's surprising action as a vote against renewing the Patriot Act without even mentioning all the ways the bill would have reined in bulk collection of Americans' phone data under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The measure also would have brought greater transparency and oversight to domestic surveillance programs along with new privacy protections for U.S. citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The bill did extend several provisions of the Patriot Act for two years beyond the act's expiration next summer.

Far more significant, though, were its new curbs on government intrusion and the broad coalition that had worked hard to agree on those curbs, including tech companies like Apple, Google and Mircrosoft; civil liberties groups on the right and left, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The House passed a weaker version of the bill in May, voting 303-121.

Paul could have voted to allow consideration of the bill in the Senate — a debate that by itself would have advanced reforms of government surveillance. He could have offered amendments and if, in the end, he didn't like the final product voted against the bill.

Instead he was one of the 42 out of 100 senators who voted to squelch debate of an issue on which he's been most passionate.

Almost a year ago, when Paul defended NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, we praised the first-term Republican for taking a "principled stand at odds with what most of Washington thinks."

His vote last week put Paul in line with the Washington establishment and harder-line Republicans such as his party's leader, Mitch McConnell, who says bulk collection of Americans' metadata is vital to foiling terrorist attacks.

It stands to reason that Paul, who has held elected office just four years, is recalibrating earlier positions, especially as he tests the presidential waters.

To build voter trust, though, he can't appear to desert beliefs that had been at his political core.