On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the U.S. Senate to reprise his marathon speech in opposition to the metadata collection and warehousing programs that were exposed as part of the PATRIOT Act in 2013. Those programs were revealed in documents leaked by NSA defector and current beneficiary of Russian hospitality, Edward Snowden. While speaking in opposition to those programs, Paul made the claim that the American public is with him. But are they? The data suggests that it might not be true that the nation is standing with Rand as they were two years ago.
Paul’s arguments against these programs then, as they are now, are not entirely without merit, but a debate over on the virtue of the various information netting and retention programs contained within that post-9/11 counterterrorism bill is beyond the scope of this post. Certainly, Paul’s contention that these programs deserve public scrutiny is not unwarranted. They have been subject to precisely the scrutiny Paul recommends for nearly 24 months. Moreover, Paul would not have had the opportunity to mount a pseudo-filibuster in opposition to these programs today if a federal court had not determined that the PATRIOT Act’s information gathering programs must be approved individually and not, as Sen. Mitch McConnell had liked, as a blanket reauthorization of that sprawling counterterrorism law.
None of this is to say that Paul’s arguments against the National Security Agency’s sweeping data collection powers are baseless. He made a rather compelling argument, in fact, when he contended that the use of information obtained via NSA surveillance programs that was used during the prosecution of a criminal case (albeit against a terror suspect) exceeds the bounds of the powers granted to the government by the PATRIOT Act.
But for all of Paul’s compelling arguments, he also made more than a few unconvincing claims designed to poison the public against the NSA’s programs. Perhaps the most risible contention Paul made in opposition to the NSA’s information gathering programs is that they should be repealed because they are simply unpopular.
“I think if you look at this and you say, ‘Where are the American people on this?’” Paul asked. “Well over half the people, maybe even 60 percent of the people, think the government has gone too far.”
“But if you want an example of why the Senate or Congress doesn’t represent the people very well, or why we’re maybe a decade behind, I’ll bet you it’s 20 percent of the people here would vote to stop this. To truly just stop it,” the senator contended. “At the most.”
“Whereas it’s 60, 70 percent of the public would stop these things,” Paul continued, citing an ever-increasing majority of the public that is supposedly opposed to the NSA’s programs.
“You’re not well-represented,” he added. “I think the Congress is maybe a decade behind the people. I think it’s an argument for why we should limit terms. I think it’s an argument for why we should have more turnover in office, because we get up here and we stay too long and we get separated from the people.”
Yes, senator, lawmakers in Congress who are ostensibly privy to classified intelligence briefings are on average more protective of the NSA’s surveillance programs than the general public. That is not a mark against these programs, and certainly no argument in favor of term limits; it’s an argument in their favor.
As for Paul’s claim that somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the public would do away with the NSA’s surveillance programs if they had the chance, it’s hard to find recent data that supports this assertion that does not result from surveys commissioned by the ACLU. A recent Pew Research Center poll paints a far more complex picture of how the public views the NSA’s programs in a world that is now characterized by a resurgent radical Islamist threat and is routinely imperiled by self-radicalized, ISIS-inspired lone wolves.
While 61 percent of those polled in a survey released in March say they are “less confident the surveillance efforts are serving the public interest,” it’s far from clear that this majority of respondents would do away with the NSA’s programs entirely. 82 percent of those polled are comfortable with the government monitoring the communications of suspected terrorists. Another 60 percent are unperturbed by the prospect of monitoring the communications of elected U.S. officials and foreign leaders. A narrow majority, 54 percent, say that they are not uncomfortable with federal officials monitoring the communications of non-U.S. citizens.
“Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens,” Pew’s release read. “At the same time, majorities support monitoring of those particular individuals who use words like ‘explosives’ and ‘automatic weapons’ in their search engine queries (65% say that) and those who visit anti-American websites (67% say that).”
The issue of NSA surveillance is nowhere near as black and white as it was when the Snowden leaks were initially revealed. There are some good arguments in support of Paul’s position on NSA surveillance. Those that the senator made at the open of his latest marathon floor speech on the matter are not among them.