Patriot Games

06/01/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

I'm not a big fan of libertarians or libertarian Republicans, but Kentucky Senator Rand Paul deserves tremendous credit for his brinksmanship on the Patriot Act in forcing the U.S. Senate leadership to bend on the issue of the federal government's massive, once very secret, monitoring of our private communications. Here Paul is carrying out the most useful role for libertarians in American society, pointing out where government is being especially foolhardy, incompetent, and overbearing.

Paul does a fine job in Time laying out his reasoning:

It has been said that finding a terrorist is like finding a needle in a haystack. Well, for years, your government's answer has been to make the haystack bigger by gobbling up every American's information.

That must end.

The Second Circuit Court recently ruled that Section 215 of the Patriot Act does not authorize bulk collection of phone records, and an alternative collection mechanism is unnecessary. In fact, the recent Department of Justice Inspector General report showed that the government is using broad terms in these letters to receive mass electronic transactional records.

The Inspector General report also concluded Section 215 was not responsible for preventing any terrorist plots because agents queried "did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders."

If Paul benefits as a presidential candidate as a result, well, that's hardly the worst result imaginable. Especially with far too many Democrats going along like lemmings with the massive surveillance and drone strike programs they might well excoriate if carried out by a Republican administration. (As if they would disappear when the Republicans retake the White House, as they will at some point.)

I expect Hillary Clinton -- the best-qualified candidate, if hardly always right on policy -- to be the Democratic nominee for President and I expect to support her. But the Clintons have been, at best, nowhere on this stuff.

Hillary got a dramatic start in national politics as an aide in George McGovern's anti-Vietnam War presidential campaign and staffer on the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment of President Richard Nixon. But as a senator and United States secretary of state, the one-time McGovernite peacenik was generally a McCainiac war hawk, reflexively pushing military intervention across the world, including a very expansive drone strike program conducted under unhealthy and unacceptable conditions of secrecy. And the woman who worked to impeach Nixon for his expansive domestic spying program on loyal if dissenting Americans has backed the building of a surveillance state that Nixon, John Mitchell, and J. Edgar Hoover could only have dreamed of.

But let's not pick on Hillary. Much if not most of the Democratic Party's leadership has been either missing in action or seduced to the dark side of operations they probably don't understand. Which is one reason why Colorado Senator Mark Udall's defeat last November was so galling. He was one of a few on the Senate Intelligence Committee who performed an active oversight function.

Before last November's Republican takeover, then Senate Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein complacently approved of the Obama administration's dramatic secret expansion of the surveillance and drone strike programs. Denouncing ex-National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden as a "traitor" for revealing much of the extent of the new surveillance state -- which he's not, as a reading of the Constitution makes plain -- Feinstein said she believed CIA when it told her that its drone strike program isn't killing civilians but didn't believe CIA when it said its post-9/11 torture interrogation program was just fine. Why believe one thing but not the other from the same source, asked the New York Times? "That's a good question, actually," she replied. No kidding.

Feinstein got kudos from liberals at the very end of her Senate Intel leadership when she pushed a report on CIA torture that was highly critical. However, while torture for intel is obviously a politically disastrous policy, and only an erratic source of intelligence, it seems to me that persecuting CIA officers carrying out an overactive program in the wake of post-9/11 fear and hysteria, a program which has been shut down, is not preferable to reining in a frequently backfiring drone strike program and a massive surveillance program that invades the privacy of countless people who would clearly never participate in jihadist attacks in the U.S. or anywhere else.

We're still a very good distance from the allegorical situation in last year's smash hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which surveillance, data-mining, and advanced drone strike tech are deployed to handle potential troublemakers of all sorts. But few Americans after 9/11 would have imagined that the hysteria and paranoia of the moment could have been used to spin up the monstrously ill-conceived, bloody, costly, and endlessly backfiring Iraq War, one of history's greatest geopolitical disasters, either.

Jihadism is a clear and present danger for the U.S., one requiring serious, well-conceived, and aggressive intelligence and military action as well as diplomacy. But we need to keep its nature and scope in perspective and prevent hype and hysteria from continuing to force very bad decisions. Rand Paul has just helped do that.

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