Needles, Haystacks, and NSA Snooping

How a misbegotten metaphor helped defeat mass surveillance


"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, a plausible answer is that he and his allies picked the wrong metaphor. What they meant to say (I think) 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 was a defense of indiscriminate and invasive yet ineffective data collection.

McConnell was by no means the first defender of the NSA's program to seize on the needle-in-a-haystack comparison. The first such reference 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 during an MSNBC appearance on June 7, 2013. That was a couple of days after stories based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the agency's database.

There followed a pack of figurative needles in a field of proverbial haystacks. On June 11, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.) recounted what intelligence officials had said at a closed-door congressional briefing: "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.'"

Officials such as Deputy Attorney General James Cole, NSA Director Keith Alexander, and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis likewise spoke of locating a sewing implement in a large pile of dried grass. But the more the NSA's advocates talked about needles in haystacks, the less the public seemed to support the agency's phone record dragnet.

A January 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of adults opposed "the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts," up from 47 percent in June 2013. Last month a survey commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 60 percent of voters thought "Congress should modify the Patriot Act to limit government surveillance and protect Americans' privacy."

If you do not speak spook, the failure of the agricultural analogy favored by McConnell et al. probably does not surprise you. 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 likely to fail.

According to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the phrase dates at least to the early 17th century, when a variation of it—"as well look for a needle in a bottle of hay"—appeared in Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote. It implied futility then, and it still does.

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 turn out to be. That reading of Section 215, which authorized the government to obtain a secret court order demanding "any tangible thing" by asserting its relevance, was too much even for Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the main author of the PATRIOT Act.

 "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," Sensenbrenner told the Associated Press in October 2013. There are problems with that metaphor too, but you get the idea.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. You know who ?else? wanted everyone's records?

    1. Def Jam?...

      1. Fight for NY was awesome.

    2. Not people who shop at garage sales.

  2. "If you want to tilt at windmills, you need windmills."

    I think this will be the quote I use when pushing green energy.

    1. "Section 215 helps us find a needle in the haystack," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month"

      You don't find a needle in a haystack by making the haystack bigger. Asshole.

      1. What do you care? The hay doesn't even know it's in a stack!

    2. Pete Townshend is touring as we *write* with one half of The Who.

  3. I have it on good authority that "Ruppersberger" translates as "Little Ass-Faced One"

  4. And they never bring up,or want to admit,that these programs and the entire patriot act is used mostly to fight the war on drugs.The DEA has been very quite about all this too.

    1. "The Patriot Act fared has been used in 1,618 drug cases and only 15 terrorism cases...."


      I'm sure the number of drug cases has only increased in the intervening years since the article was written.

      1. Since they have been lying in court cases about where the information came from,I'd say the numbers are far higher. But,'mo one's civil rights have ever been violated" the hawks have said. So their lying too and know it.

        1. That's fine, those were drug-using criminals, and if there's something who strikes irrational fear in the hearts of drug warriors it's criminals on drugs. So much fear, you might call them terrorists. So mass data retention catches terrorists!

          1. Drug/Terror criminals!

            The worst kind!

      2. How many of those 15 were sting operations where the people
        were not really terrorists but got talked into doing stupid things
        by the FBI?

    2. My understanding was that these powers granted by the PATRIOT Act were already in place for investigating drug kingpins, and the act simply extended them to investigate anyone in the name of terrorism.

  5. "If you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack,"

    Unless you're running an FBI sting operation, then you just need a magnet.

    1. The FBI does not use magnets. They drill holes in pieces of soft wire and call them needles.

  6. If you're looking for a needle in a haystack, step one is not to dump twenty tons more hay on the pile.

    1. But think of how many more needles might be hiding there! They couldn't find one needle in the first place, but surely with so much more hay they're bound to turn up another.

  7. And I'm all for Sensenbrenner trying to stop his Frankenstein monster, but what the hell with the mixed metaphor?

    1. The alien mothership is in orbit here terrorists are hiding in plain sight. If we can hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

      1. So it's a 'wake up call'?

      2. The hand is on the other foot, now, Kramer!

  8. I think this program is more like a pile of manure. 'there must be a horse in here somewhere'

  9. Look people - we're looking for a needle in a haystack here! So I say we just light the haystack on fire and sift through the ashes. That would make law enforcement's job so much easier.

    As an added plus, the terrorists can't burn down an ash pile.

    1. Ag, you silly goose, you need to go one step back in the process. If you just scorch all of your fields first you can't even make any hay in which the needle might hide!

    2. Get a Shark.

  10. This morning I was listening to a report on the recent efforts by Rand Paul (et al) which delayed the renewal of the 'Act for two days. The reporter referred to the two days as "the Surveillance Blackout" - as if the government had no ability to monitor "zee terrists" and the nation was in grave peril. The radio program almost immediately went to a Congressman who remembered Nine-Eleven (TM) in detail for us and he mentioned how we would never have even considered making ourselves so vulnerable at that time because we still knew how much danger we are all in.

    The program briefly mentioned Snowden and the current opposition to the Patriot Act as a type of "they-said they-said" comparison, but the blatant state-first propaganda element was so over the top that I wondered how many listeners would be susceptible to the report.

    Then I considered the majority of the people I hear and see, or whose words I read online, and I turned the radio off and remembered the halcyon days of my ignorance and apathy and I briefly missed the unaware comfort they brought me.

    After that I remembered one of an old buddy's favorite songs - DEVO's Beautiful World - and experienced what I can only describe as a Reasonoid-esque type of solace.

    1. We're the gamblers on the Titanic - having a few cigars and whiskeys as the great ship goes down. Enjoy!

      1. "We are the music-makers,
        And we are the dreamers of dreams,
        Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
        And sitting by desolate streams.
        World-losers and world-forsakers,
        Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
        Yet we are the movers and shakers,
        Of the world forever, it seems...

        We, in the ages lying
        In the buried past of the earth,
        Built Nineveh with our sighing,
        And Babel itself with our mirth;
        And o'erthrew them with prophesying
        To the old of the new world's worth;
        For each age is a dream that is dying,
        Or one that is coming to birth."

        1. Very interesting sir.

    2. I am now seriously depressed to start the day. (makes frowny face in Charles' general direction)

    3. Don't listen to Hugh Hewitt then Chuck. That rat fucker is full on sucking the NSA's cock.

      A caller yesterday asked him why he'd trust the govt. After all wasn't he a conservative and when did they ever trust the govt?

      Hugh went on a rant about how he doesn't trust any govt agency EXCEPT for the intelligence agencies. Everyone in there (according to Hugh) is a great American and they would never lie.

      And then he went on to call Snowden a bunch of names.

      Holy shit, I've never liked Hugh's show but that was so completely over the top it was impossible to turn away from it.

      1. J. Edgar Hoover and the Church report would seem to show the lie in that statement. Never ,ever trust a agent of the government. Then there's Hanson and the Whitey Bulger cases at the FBI. and on and on and on.

  11. "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."

    Indeed, the NSA is a political football hacking away at the roots of the Ship of State.

    1. That ship sailed out the barn door a long time ago.

      1. When the cat gets out of the bag, there's no point in bolting the barn door to catch the two birds in the bush.

        1. Truer words were never spoken.

  12. he and his allies picked the wrong metaphor.

    What is "connect the dots", chopped liver?

    1. For god's sake Sullum, don't help them find
      a good metaphor.

    2. I agree. He should have called the NSA what they are: hoarders. Hoarders collect shit for the sake of collecting with no intention for lack of ability to ever process the hoard.

      1. Winner!

  13. Misbegotten Metaphor

    Nice band name.

    1. Miss Metaphor, a riot grrl Smiths cover band

  14. While we're beating this dead horse like nobody's business, please note that deeming certain pieces of hay to be needles simplifies the task considerably.

    1. All those piles of brown hay that are at or above medium height are needles and should be dealt with appropriately.

  15. Another fool who doesn't know why a blunderbuss is shaped like a blunderbuss.

  16. I saw the needle and the damage done-
    Neil Young

  17. Hay, hay, my, my-
    Neil Young

  18. "Like looking for a needle in a stack of needles..."

  19. Typical government thinking, as we see with the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. When their policies fail, the solution is to do even more of what has failed.

  20. Its as simple as this:

    If you are looking for needles, why do you keep building haystacks?

    1. The SEIU haystack workers?

  21. In my ongoing quest to liven up meetings, I'm putting this on the list of things to say at the right moment:

    If we can hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

    Yesterday, I actually got to say this:

    I'm not happy until you're not happy.

    You could practically hear the neurons frying.

  22. If the NSA ruled, they'd arrest everyone and then free those who could prove they weren't terrorists. Then we'd all be safe. And by "we" I mean the ruling elite and their new lackeys.

  23. What is the perfect sauce for a shit sandwich?

  24. Strikes me that a good argument for the elimination or serious curbing at the very least of NSA, TSA, DEA and any other members of the "alphabet soup regime under which we live could be made. Of course, there would have to be ample consideration given to the number of "rice bowls" such action might upset.

    That being said,consider a bit from the past. Quite a few years ago, the story goes, a Member of Congress, possibly annoyed at the antics of the federal bureaucracy supposedly offered the following proposal to be enacted into law. That the number of persons employed by The Bureau of Indian Affairs, under no circumstances be allowed to exceed the number of American Indians whose affairs the bureau supposedly looked after.No action, it is claimed, was ever had on the proposal.

  25. Why look for needles in a haystack when you can just knit the haystack into a nice large sweater?

  26. "If we can do it, we want to do it. If we want to do it, we will do it. After we have done it, we keep it a secret. Everything we do is legal because we do it according to procedure: our procedures. All of the things we do, are necessary to keep you safe."

    That is spook speak.

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    This is wha- I do...... ?????? http://www.www.jobnet20.com

  28. Nathaniel . although Stephanie `s rep0rt is super... I just bought a top of the range Mercedes sincee geting a check for $4416 this last four weeks and would you believe, ten/k last-month . no-doubt about it, this really is the best-job I've ever done . I actually started seven months/ago and almost straight away started making a nice over $79.. p/h..... ?????? http://www.worksite90.com

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