Civil liberties champion US Senator Rand Paul wants to scale back domestic spying and aid to Syrian rebels, policies he said Thursday could upend the 2016 presidential race as he himself mulls a run for the White House.
But barely three years into a first Senate term, it is the Libertarian Republican who is doing the upending in Washington, warning that abuse of power by President Barack Obama, including use of unmanned drones and military adventurism abroad, could galvanize a new generation of young voters.
It's not just Americans who should be worried about the vast surveillance program recently brought to light by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, Paul told AFP in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
"If you're a European, I don't think there's any protection over whether we read your email, whether we listen to your phone call," Paul said.
"If you're a European company and you're calling on the telephone and talk to an American company about a merger, and now you have to realize that probably your conversation is being recorded, I think that's potentially a problem."
Paul has acknowledged the need to conduct surveillance on terror suspects. But without broader civil protections, "that's going to lead to worsening interaction between us and other countries," he said.
"I think it's frankly why you're seeing people give asylum to Snowden."
Records show that the fugitive former defense analyst for the ultra-secret National Security Agency, who is now sought by the Obama administration, made two donations last year to the presidential campaign of Paul's father, former congressman Ron Paul, the longtime spearhead of the Libertarian movement.
'We can't be the world's savior'
Like his popular father, Rand Paul shows no hesitation in calling out abuse of executive power, including when it comes to military intervention abroad.
He is one of the most vocal critics of Obama's plan to send weapons to rebels fighting the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, saying US "over-eagerness" for war is leading Washington into one quagmire after another.
"I think it's a big mistake" to support the Syrian rebels, he said, citing some groups' loose connections with terror groups like Al-Qaeda, and how US weapons could find their way into the hands of extremists.
"I think it shouldn't happen unless there's a vote of Congress," he added.
"We can't be the world's savior," said Paul, who has unsuccessfully urged Congress to pull the plug on US aid to Egypt, Libya and Pakistan.
Stock in the 50-year-old senator from Kentucky surged in March when he literally took a stand on the floor of the Senate to demand that Obama clarify his position on the use of unmanned drones.
Paul launched an old-fashioned filibuster, speaking at long lengths about the steady erosion of civil liberties and challenging the White House to definitively say whether it can order a deadly domestic drone strike on a US citizen.
His filibuster lasted nearly 13 hours, and the Justice Department gave him the answer he wanted, earning him plaudits from both the right, including fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, and leftist groups like Code Pink.
Soon people were talking about Paul running for the White House. In March he won a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an early indicator of right wing support. Rubio finished a close second.
But Republicans need to look closely at how to broaden the party's appeal if it is to win back the White House. Some say Rubio did just that when he unveiled an immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate Thursday.
Paul split with Rubio on the bill, but stressed there were other ways to galvanize young and minority voters, such as advocating "a less aggressive foreign policy" and commitment to civil liberties.
"If there were a Republican with a Libertarian bent versus a more war-like Democrat like Hillary Clinton, who doesn't appear to be concerned with privacy, who wants to be involved in the next war in Syria... you'll see a transformational election where people all of a sudden are considering the Republican Party who had never considered the Republican Party," he said.