Domestic Spying ‘Suspended’ But Almost Certainly Continues Unabated

Don't believe everything you read in the papers.

NSA headquarter

The New York Times lede is typical of the reporting on the Senate’s failure to pass a timely extension of the USA PATRIOT Act:

The government’s authority to sweep up vast quantities of phone records in the hunt for terrorists expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday after Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, blocked an extension of the program during an extraordinary and at times caustic Sunday session of the Senate.

Given that said authority was at best at the edge of legislative authority when the program was initiated, I’m exceedingly skeptical that the program will be impacted in the slighted one iota’s by the Senate’s actions or inactions last night. Absent Congress actively legislating an end to the program—which isn’t going to happen—the NSA and other agencies will continue right along doing what they believe necessary to accomplishing their broader mission.

I would otherwise be more concerned than my co-blogger Doug Mataconis about the lapse. While I agree with the spirit of this

 The panicked rhetoric from the White House, the intelligence community, and most of the Senate about what would happen if the Patriot Act were allowed to lapse has been laughably absurd, especially in light of the FBI’s admission that the powers granted by the act had not stopped a single terror attack and that the Patriot Act has been used more in drug cases than terror cases in its fourteen year history. If nothing else, it is now quite clear where certain people in both the Republican and Democratic parties stand when it comes to civil liberties issue. Whether the American people will care about that is there choice, but as far as I’m concerned Senators Paul and Wyden have done the nation a great service.

I believe Paul and Wyden have been too cavalier. While I absolutely agree that the post-9/11 panic that spawned a lot of bad policy—the PATRIOT Act, the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, and other overreactions come readily to mind—the job Congress is to offer thoughtful corrections. The NSA’s data mining program almost certainly goes too far in infringing civil liberties with too little gain in security. But the solution is in striking the right balance, not suspending the program entirely.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    I believe Paul and Wyden have been too cavalier.


  2. gVOR08 says:

    It has always been illegal to open US mail or to wiretap without a warrant. We’ve seen any number of stories over the decades making it clear the FBI and other agencies have routinely done both. The law has no effective sanction against doing either. They just can’t use it in court. There is no way the NSA isn’t continuing the surveillance we now know about, and much more we don’t.

    (Yeah, yeah, I know, “forbidden fruit”. Only applies if somebody lets the court know what happened.

  3. Tillman says:


    There is no way the NSA isn’t continuing the surveillance we now know about, and much more we don’t.

    Yeah, otherwise that big-ass data farm they were building in Iowa Utah would go to waste! What are they supposed to use all that computery for now, the world’s most advanced game of Tetris?

    We’ve already invested in surveillance in a way that makes infrastructure proponents weep. Now we’re just going to throw it away because all-or-nothing politics is the flavor of the decade.

  4. Scott says:

    We’ve seen any number of stories over the decades making it clear the FBI and other agencies have routinely done both.

    Funny you should write this. Just last night I watch a documentary (called 1971) on PBS’ Independent Lens that told the story of the break-in of the FBI offices in Media, PA (outside Philadelphia) in 1971 and the subsequent release of the files to the news media. This resulted in all kinds of revelations of illegal activity by the FBI.

    As usual, the parallels to today are close and shows that history repeats itself.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    That reminds me, I need to send in my ACLU dues.

  6. T says:

    “Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

    – Mencken

  7. DrDaveT says:

    the job of Congress is to offer thoughtful corrections


    Stop it James; you’re killin’ me.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Well, I didn’t say Congress is succeeding at the job. But, yeah, that’s their role here: setting the broad parameters under which the Executive operates and then monitoring said operation via their oversight power.