Mitch McConnell Still Thinks the NSA Should Keep Its Haystack, Because There Must Be a Needle in There Somewhere

A brief history of a misbegotten metaphor


Office of Mitch McConnell

Last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explained why he continues to oppose legislation that would revise Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to ban the mass collection of telephone metadata by the National Security Agency (NSA). "Section 215 helps us find a needle in the haystack," he said. "But under the USA Freedom Act, there might not be a haystack at all." It was by no means the first time a defender of the NSA's phone-record dragnet seized on this metaphor, the popularity of which is rather puzzling when you consider that it refers to a hopeless undertaking.

The first such reference to needles and haystacks in the Nexis news database came from Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary. "If you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack," Bash said on MSNBC in June 2013, a couple of days after stories based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the NSA's database. There followed a pack of figurative needles in a field of proverbial haystacks:

Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.), recounting what intelligence officials had said at a closed-door congressional briefing on June 11, 2013: "One of the things that was said…was, 'Why do you need all of those numbers in a database?' And they said, 'To find a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack.'"

Senate Judiciary Committee

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on June 18, 2013: "If you're looking for the needle in a haystack, you have to have the haystack."

Cole, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on July 17, 2013: "If you're looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack to look through."

NSA Director Keith Alexander, in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum on July 18, 2013: "You need the haystack to find the needle."

NSA Deputy Director John Inglis, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31, 2013: "In order to find the needle that matched up against that number, we needed the haystack."

Cole, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on August 26, 2013: "It's the old adage of 'if you're looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack to look through.'"


Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chief author of the PATRIOT Act, explaining the need for legislation to explicitly reject the Obama administration's broad reading of Section 215, in an October 2013 interview with the Associated Press: "This is the difference between using a rifle shot to get the phone records of somebody that we have great suspicion is involved in terrorist activity [and] using a blunderbuss to grab the whole haystack and to try to find the needle in it."

Inglis, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on October 30, 2013: "It needs to be the whole haystack."

Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Pa.) at a House Rules Committee hearing on May 27, 2014: "What's valuable is having the haystack, not asking for the needle."

As Sensenbrenner's comment illustrates, the haystack metaphor was easily turned around by critics of the NSA's program (although I'm not quite sure how you use a rifle to locate a needle or a blunderbuss to grab a haystack). Despite Cole's attempt to rewrite this idiomatic description of futility as an "old adage" meaning the opposite, most of the 400-plus references in Nexis treat the needle-in-the-haystack analogy as alarming, self-evidently absurd, or both. Usually when someone says a proposal is like looking for a needle in a haystack, he is not recommending it; he is suggesting the idea is misguided and bound to fail. And as it turned out, the Obama administration was unable to cite a single case in which the NSA's database helped thwart a terrorist attack that could not have been stopped with a more focused approach. 

The needle-in-a-haystack image also highlighted the breadth of the NSA's data grab and the audaciousness of its argument that everyone's phone records were "relevant" to a terrorism investigation because some of them might be. But Mitch McConnell is sticking with this misbegotten metaphor. Unfortunately for him, it looks like he will lose his precious haystack even if Congress does what he wants and reauthorizes Section 215 unchanged, since last week a federal appeals court said that provision does not mean what he claims. And if Congress does nothing, Section 215 will expire at the end of this month.