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Data collection divide muddles party labels, makes strange bedfellows

In the storm that blew up Thursday over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing a subpoena of telecom data from Verizon, the resulting alliances made for some strange bedfellows with ideologies clashing, at times, with party labels.

Libertarian favorite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stood with liberal Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jon Tester of Montana in criticizing the court-approved gathering of the telecom data. “Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?” Merkley asked.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina stood with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California in defending the collection of telecom data.

The White House won't confirm specific reports that the NSA obtained phone records of millions of Verizon customers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., explains why senior administration officials are defending the practice that includes domestic calls and could have a much larger reach. Feinstein also says the leak should be investigated and that the U.S. "has become a culture of leaks."

“This program has strong restrictions on it,” Feinstein -- who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- assured NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “The data are just phone numbers and trunk lines; there's no content. It is put behind a wall. The only way it can be used is if there is strict scrutiny -- reasonable, articulable knowledge that this can connect to a terrorist attack, either under way or under planning or some conspiracy.”

But Paul portrayed the collection of telephone data as “an astounding assault on the Constitution. After revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Justice Department seized reporters' phone records, it would appear that this Administration has now sunk to a new low.”

Paul -- a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 -- noted that he’d offered an amendment last year that would have attached Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But it was defeated -- and in fact got only 12 votes.

That vote revealed the way terrorism can alter the political lineup; only two other GOP senators supported Paul on his amendment: Mike Lee of Utah and Dean Heller of Nevada. The majority of the support came from Democrats -- nine lawmakers, including Merkley and Tester -- voted for Paul’s amendment.

NBC's Pete Williams reports on the secret collection of phone records and why this practice was renewed. Williams also explains why the White House hasn't officially confirmed or denied this report.

On terrorism policies, Paul appears to be a minority within his own party.

On issues like abortion, gun control or “Obamacare,” Democrats Merkley and Feinstein have voted the same -- and on the opposite side from Paul. But on the collection of telephone data the Democrats clash.

Terrorism policies have a way of the jarring the usual left-versus-right categories: instead, it’s libertarian mistrust of executive power (Merkley and Paul) versus a willingness to allow extraordinary steps to defeat and deter terrorists (Graham and Feinstein).

This extends to the issue of using drones overseas against terrorist suspects. Referring to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Democrat Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota noted in April that “You know we’re in strange territory when Sen. Cruz and I have the same questions” about President Barack Obama’s drone strategy.

If Paul does indeed make his bid for the Republican nomination, it will be an opportunity -- 12 years after the Sept. 11 attacks -- to test how voters nationally reassess policies that were launched in the aftermath of that day of terror.

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