Terrorism is not going away. We saw that in the closing of the Los Angeles schools after what was deemed a “credible” threat. The threat turned out to be not real, but with the country under heightened alarm, local authorities have become hyper-vigilant. That was 650,000 students sent or kept home.
When a good piece of time passed without a serious terrorist attack, politicians went soft. Many hawks on the right switched gears, turning on “big government” as the predominant evil and its national security programs as an assault on the privacy of innocent Americans.
With the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, California, still in the headlines, many Americans are wondering what was so terrible about the federal bulk surveillance program that Congress ended in September. Rekindled fears of terrorism have changed the conversation.
Hence the violent pendulum swinging of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz in Tuesday’s debate. Cruz had championed the law that stripped the National Security Agency of the power to collect the metadata of Americans’ communications. He had some explaining to do on Tuesday.
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“Metadata” refers to such information as the time and length of calls and the numbers called. It does not include the content of the conversation or even names. In the now-ended program, the NSA could delve deeper only when a disturbing pattern was detected. And even then, it had to first obtain a court order.
A frantic evasion
During the debate, tweeters stuck on horse race politics thrilled to the brawl between Cruz and the other Cuban-American candidate, Marco Rubio. But there was real substance in their battle. Rubio, who supported the NSA program, came off as the man for all seasons. Cruz dissolved into frantic evasion.
What was Cruz’s reason for supporting a bill to stop the NSA program? “It ended the federal government’s bulk collection of phone metadata of millions of law-abiding citizens,” he explained.
Well, yeah. Every day, security officials at American airports inspect the baggage of over a million law-abiding citizens to find the one possibly carrying a bomb. The jihadi terrorists who have preyed on this country appeared to be law-abiding, even model, citizens. By what magical, mystical powers of clairvoyance does Cruz think we can spot the “bad guys,” as he puts them?
The candidates routinely bashed President Obama as weak on terrorism. In truth, he fought like a tiger to retain the NSA’s ability to conduct bulk surveillance. In doing so, he often butted heads with fellow Democrats jumping on the same phony privacy-rights bandwagon as did Cruz.
Republican backers of the NSA program, such as Rubio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also had to buck their own party. As it turned out, the program was killed by a Republican-run Senate and a Republican-led House, with considerable help from Democrats.
The collection of the metadata has already ended, and soon all the information will reside with the phone companies. To get at it, the NSA will have to obtain a warrant and take it to a phone company, of which there are thousands.
The goal of protecting both security and privacy is a worthy one, but it requires two things: One is the maturity to accept the often-difficult trade-offs. The other is an understanding of what the data collection being considered actually involves.
It’s unclear how we can have security without a federal bulk surveillance program. Terrorists don’t walk around wearing neon “bad guy” signs.