The hysteria over the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata climaxed this weekend with a last-ditch effort to extend provisions of the Patriot Act that expired at midnight on Sunday. That effort was primarily, and vocally, blocked by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who correctly note that the United States can fight terrorism without collecting data on all Americans' phone calls, but also opposes the USA Freedom Act bill that reforms that program.
Along the way, Paul took the extraordinary step of accusing his opponents of secretly wishing for a terrorist attack:
"Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me. One of the people in the media, the other day, came up to me and said, 'oh, when there's a great attack, aren't you going to feel guilty you caused this attack?' It's like the people who attack us are responsible for attacks on us. Do we blame the police chief for the attack of the Boston bombers? The thing is that there can be attacks even if we use the constitution, but there have been attacks while collecting your bulk data. So the ones who say when an attack occurs it's going to be all your fault, are any of them willing to accept the blame, we have bulk collection now, are any of them willing to accept the blame for the Boston bombing, for the recent shooting in Garland? No, but they'll be the first to point fingers and say, 'Oh, yeah it's all your fault, we never should have given up on this great program.'"
Paul has a point, because without a terrorist attack to blame on him, how can his presidential juggernaut be stopped? Personally, I'm secretly rooting for the Rapture to occur next summer, so the Democrats can take back the House and the Senate.
At Monday's White House daily briefing, Daily Mail White House Correspondent Francesca Chambers shopped Paul's remarks to Press Secretary Josh Earnest, whose response was noteworthy for what it didn't say:
It's possible that Earnest didn't understand the question even on second reading, but Chambers didn't stutter, and Earnest most certainly did not say that Rand Paul, or anyone else who blocked these provisions, should not be blamed for some future terrorist attack. Twisted egotism aside, Paul is right that if there is another terrorist attack, there will be blame. Rand Paul will certainly be a major recipient of that blame, but Earnest seems perfectly happy to spread that out to all of the Republicans in the Senate.
With regard to the Patriot Act provisions, Earnest is absolutely right. Rand Paul blocking extension of the Patriot Act has nothing to do with the failure of the USA Freedom Act, which was opposed by 42 Republicans and Angus King, and which would reform the NSA program with an idea that has been kicking around for several years. More broadly, these are the facts of life of politics, and the only thing Rand Paul is doing here is diverting some of the blame that would otherwise have gone to, and will certainly still be heaped on, President Obama.
Practically speaking, though, I don't buy that anything in the Patriot Act, or the almost-as-derpily-named USA Freedom Act, is so crucial to our safety that its absence will invite catastrophe. Fox's Kevin Corke astutely asked Earnest if his reluctance to say that Americans are less safe today is an indication that these programs really aren't all that crucial (Earnest punted).
That reticence could also be explained by a desire not to panic financial markets, but what's telling is that Earnest also said that the White House wasn't following the events in the Senate closely, and seemed to prove that by not knowing about Paul's remark, which has been played on a loop all morning. The White House is leaning heavily into the politics of this issue, but they don't seem to be biting their nails in the stands over the substance.
While the usefulness of post-9/11 measures like the Patriot Act have been wildly overblown, so have the concerns over privacy raised by Rand Paul and others. If searching metadata is even a little bit useful, then requiring phone companies to retain it is a small price to pay for whatever help it can be.