MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

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 McConnellOffice of Mitch McConnellLast 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 CommitteeSenate 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.'"

YouTubeYouTube

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Rich||

    There followed a pack of figurative needles in a field of proverbial haystacks

    “There must be a pony in here somewhere!'”

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    OT: Can somebody explain to me why the fuck flood insurance is sold by the FedGov?

    I don't know much about this topic, and it screams of having at one time been a test balloon for a more massive intervention into the insurance market (like Ocare).

  • ||

    I think because flood insurance is a sure loser and thus private companies won't touch it.

  • Sevo||

    Pure conjecture on my part, but I also think it is because a LOT of major farm-owning companies own farms in the mid-west flood plains and donate generously to certain political slime-bags.
    Anyone care to research ADM's holdings?

  • ||

    I thought the mafia building hotels all along the gulf coast was responsible for that. Never thought about farms.

    By building hotels I mean using duct tape and cardboard, then praying like hell for a hurricane.

  • Agammamon||



    OT: Can somebody explain to me why the fuck flood insurance is sold by the FedGov?

    I don't know much about this topic, and it screams of having at one time been a test balloon for a more massive intervention into the insurance market (like Ocare).

    Nothing so competent.

    The federal government sells flood insurance because no one else will. Oh, and some rich people wanted to live in a flood plain, their insurance company decided to not cover floods, so they gave some money to some campaigns and VOILA! The federal government stepped in to ensure that this 'market failure' was corrected.

  • Paul.||

    To the United States Congress: Leave my hay the fuck alone.

    That is all.

  • ||

    The Turtle is correct. If not for diligent searches for needles in that haystack Jihadis might have attacked a bunch of cartoonists in Texas. Fortunately 'ol Mitch stopped them just in time.

  • ||

    And if Congress does nothing, Section 215 will expire at the end of this month

    Is Lindsey Graham going to cry?

  • Sevo||

    Is Mitch's mail (ALL of it) captured wholesale? I know DiFi got pissed when she found out her mail was subject to capture.

  • PH2050||

    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.

    John was right, this point needs to be hammered home as hard as possible. Otherwise you'll have all the "9/11!", "for the children" and other bs excuses that will keep this stuff afloat. WoT, WoD, same deal.

  • ||

    The reason they can't is because they aren't trying. They are using the surveillance apparatus to bust domestic drug dealers which is not only much more lucrative but allows them to use it on citizens, which was the point all along. If you can watch the movements of a drug dealer and put together who his network of people are, listen in on his calls, then you can do that to anyone, especially people who think the government is out of control.

    Speaking of which, I caught a small snippet of Mark Levin today. He was ranting that our government is essentially unmoored from the constitution and further, that the constitution is being changed / rewritten without any formal process and without our consent. "this is unacceptable" he said.

    Mark has a pretty wide audience and is well respected. Saying incendiary shit like that seems like it could be dangerous with the fucksticks we have in power now. How long before he gets whisked off in a black Hummer in the middle of the night?

  • PH2050||

    Idk, I'm not too familiar with him but isn't he a relatively well-known media personality? Hard to explain "disappearing" someone like that.

    Then again, he could have a fatal car wreck...

  • Zillamod||

    Mitch McConnell, your haystack is illegal.

    Says 2nd Circuit Court. You can it delete-expunge it all b/c all that data is STOLEN.

    ... etc. etc. Don't reauth the Patriot Act.... If you do, the courts will stop you because the NSA is spying on lawyers in America. They do not like what the DNI does to their attorney-client priviledge.

    And they're mad.

    And we're mad too.

    Hey look... here's some tar and a bag of feathers....

  • ||

    For congress and all the other feather worthy in DC, we'll be needing a flotilla of those tar and feathers. I'm talking like Normandy invasion here.

  • ||

    Methinks Senator McConnell, as well as most of the rest of The Senate, Congress, and FedGov, need an Omaha Beach treatment.

  • Agammamon||

    "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."

    Something tells me that Mitch does not have all that strong a grasp of the English language. The above implies that its going to be *easier* to find the needle, since the haystack is no longer there to obscure it.

    The lizard people need to step up their game. Its pretty obvious that they're getting lax.

    OBEY!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Do any of the utility arguments matter? The NSA clearly and intentionally broke the law and violated the rights of many millions. That's the entire equation. I await hearings, trials, legislation, impeachments, and so on.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Mitch McConnel, still a cunt: film at 11.

    -jcr

  • Libertarian Joe||

    "you cant find the needle in a haystack, without the haystack"

    ummm ok, but wouldn't it be much easier without the haystack, because then you would just have the needle, right?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online