Orlando, Florida (CNN) - Speaking to a libertarian-leaning audience Sunday about ex-contractor Edward Snowden, Sen. Rand Paul said he’s thinking about ways to "expand the whistleblower statute to government contractors."
“We’ve got so many millions of government contractors that when they see something wrong, they should be able to report it without repercussions,” he said in a live video appearance to a Florida conference hosted by the Campaign for Liberty.
The libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky, who’s repeatedly said he has “mixed emotions” on the issue, has taken heat from some in the libertarian base. While he thinks Snowden’s efforts did a service to the country by disclosing the depth of data collection programs by the National Security Agency, Paul still believes Snowden broke the law and has said he deserves “a few years in prison.”
Many libertarians, however, consider Snowden a hero. In fact, his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, heralded the ex-contractor Friday night in a speech at the same Florida conference.
“I think we should praise our whistleblowers,” Ron Paul said to applause, adding “people like Edward Snowden” should be rewarded.
While it’s not new that Ron Paul has been more supportive of Snowden than his son, Rand Paul’s consideration of expanding protections for whistleblowers is an approach that would appeal to those in the libertarian base.
Paul, who's mulling a presidential bid, said he still believes there needs to be some state secrets, but there also “needs to be a whistleblower program for people to have a venue.”
Snowden faces felony charges of espionage and theft of government property in the United States, and he has said he won't return until the U.S. changes its whistleblower protection laws.
Snowden said last month that he’s not protected under the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement, nor by an executive directive made by President Barack Obama two years ago that reformed whistleblower legislation but exempted intelligence community contractors.
The Washington Post ran a fact-check on Snowden’s claims and found the President’s directive, which has been open to interpretation, appears to offer some protections to contractors but those provisions lack clarity, especially on the topic of retaliation.
Paul didn’t repeat Sunday his position that a few years of prison time would be an appropriate punishment. Instead he said he doesn’t know what Snowden’s sentence should be if he returns from Russia.
But he jokingly reiterated his argument that Snowden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should share the same prison cell for about the same amount of time.
Clapper apologized last year to a Senate committee for giving members a "clearly erroneous" answer when he said the NSA was not collecting any type of data on millions of Americans.
The senator is currently suing the Obama administration, calling for the government to dismantle its program of collecting and storing phone metadata.
Announcing a shift in policy, Obama said in late March the information should instead be held by phone carriers who would then provide the material to counterterrorism agencies.