Jacob Sullum on the Misbegotten Metaphor That Helped Defeat Mass Surveillance


Stephen McKay/Creative Commons

"Section 215 helps us find a needle in the haystack," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month, referring to the PATRIOT Act provision that the National Security Agency (NSA) says allows it to scoop up everyone's telephone records. If Congress imposes limits aimed at preventing such mass snooping, the Kentucky Republican warned, "there might not be a haystack at all."

For those who wonder how McConnell lost his battle to renew Section 215 without changes, Jacob Sullum writes, a plausible answer is that he and his allies picked the wrong metaphor. What they meant to say was that the NSA needs all the help it can get in the challenging task of identifying terrorists before they attack. What the public heard, Sullum says, was a defense of indiscriminate and invasive yet ineffective data collection.