The Senate debates NSA spying


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 31, 2015—Yesterday the U.S. Senate convened for an unusual Sunday session to debate whether to end bulk collection of communications by the National Security Agency. At issue is whether to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act. National security hawks argue that it is an essential tool to fight terrorism.

But is it?

In an editorial in Time, Sen. Rand Paul argued that the bulk collection violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the privacy and security of citizens:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Patriot Act has instead been used to allow the NSA to completely sweep the telecommunications of every American.

READ: NSA Spying on Americans still unrestricted

Our country was founded on the principle of individual—not general—warrants.– Sen. Rand Paul, 2015

It would be difficult to find a more complete reversal of constitutional principle. In the 1750s, the British use of general warrants prompted opposition from the Massachusetts legislature and especially from lawyer James Otis. Otis is the one who popularized the phrase “”Taxation without representation is tyranny.” General warrants were used to collect the taxes.

Fast forward more than two and a half centuries and the federal government again finds the use of general warrants a useful tool—this time against terrorists.

The problem, as Paul and others point out, is that the bulk data collection enabled by the use of general warrants is not only illegal but it has not helped fight terrorism at all. What it has done is violate every American’s right to privacy. The fact that the NSA only catalogs the metadata is no excuse—that metadata can be used to retrieve full text at any time.

READ: Metadata matters: The ongoing NSA scandal

 “Show me the man, and I will find you the crime.” — Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief of secret police

The United States fought and won World War II without spying on every American citizen. We fought and won the Cold War in the same way. Indeed, the National Security Agency, which grew out of wartime military intelligence agencies, was focused on foreign intelligence. The Carter-era Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act even went so far as to define foreigners residing in the United States as “U.S.persons” whom the foreign intelligence community were not allowed to target.

That changed after Sept. 11, 2001. The country was willing to trade our essential liberty for some measure of security.

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – Benjamin Franklin,1755

We have all the tools we need to preserve both security and liberty. – Sen. Rand Paul, 2015

It hasn’t been a good trade. If the methods of communication in 2015 are far more numerous than they were in 1985, so too are the methods of intercepting and analyzing those communications. Back in the Cold War days, the bulk of intercepted communications were filtered out at the source; today we collect and store everything we would have thrown away then. Why? Not because it’s useful but because we can.

That needs to stop. Today is a good day to stop it.

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  • acmaurer

    Update: Rand wins! Bulk collection ended yesterday. The “USA Freedom Act” may pass eventually, but it at least lessens the wholesale collection that the NSA had been doing under the Patriot Act.

  • Al, the question we should all ask is whether we feel safer with our personal communication data being collected, versus not being collected. It’s bad enough this is patently illegal – it’s not even effective!