Policy: National Security

Chris Christie does bellyflop on NSA spying

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Gene Healy,Columnists,National Security,Chris Christie,Surveillance,Terrorism,Analysis

Rep. Justin Amash's unsuccessful July 24 effort to defund the National Security Agency's dragnet collection of Americans' call records failed in a close vote, 205 to 217.

Thursday morning, New Jersey's Chris Christie threw a punch at surveillance skeptics like the Michigan Republican: "This strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now ... I think is a very dangerous thought." "These esoteric, intellectual debates" won't mean anything when "the next attack" kills "thousands of Americans." "I remember what we felt like on Sept. 12, 2001," Christie declared.

My first thought was, "I take back everything nice I've ever said about him. Maybe he IS too obese to be president."

My second was, haven't the arguments for unrestrained spying gotten any better over the last 11 years? Talk to the "widows and orphans," visualize a smoking crater, and write a blank check to the Security-Industrial Complex?

That, apparently, is the kind of debate over NSA spying that Christie's pal, President Obama, "welcomes." Just before the vote on the Amash amendment, the White House charged that "this blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process."

That took some chutzpah: The debate Obama allegedly welcomes is only taking place because a former NSA contractor revealed that the administration had been lying to the public about bulk data collection. During the July 24 debate, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the PATRIOT Act's principal authors, reaffirmed that it was never intended to make every American's call records "relevant" to terrorism investigations.

Contra Christie, the implications of the administration's sweeping legal theory aren't particularly "esoteric." Last Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., explained: "If you know who someone called, when they called, where they called from, and how long they talked, you lay bare the personal lives of law-abiding Americans to the scrutiny of government bureaucrats."

There's nothing in the administration's interpretation of the PATRIOT Act that limits bulk collection to call records. It could be used to vacuum up "medical records, financial records, or credit card purchases," Wyden said, or for databases of "gun owners or readers of books and magazines deemed subversive" -- it makes "the government's authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens essentially limitless."

"Collect it all" is the mentality driving NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, according to a recent Washington Post profile. A senior intelligence official who worked with Alexander on Iraqi counterintelligence notes, "his approach was, 'Let's collect the whole haystack.' "

Alexander takes a similarly maximalist approach on the home front. The Post describes a private meeting a few years ago between General Alexander and financial industry leaders, where he proposed "an unprecedented intrusion into the financial institutions' databases."

To deal with cyberattack threats, the NSA head suggested that "private companies should give the government access to their networks so it could screen out the harmful software." According to one participant, "folks in the room looked at each other like, 'Wow'" and refused.

In a July 19 interview, General Alexander's predecessor, Gen. Michael Hayden, revealed a few "dangerous thoughts" of his own. Musing about the "ideological embrace of transparency as a virtue," the former NSA head opined:

"It is a little like the Boston bombers.... at what point does a cultural tendency towards transparency flip-over to become a deep threat inside your system?" "Wow," indeed.

On one side, you have a band of legislators from both parties, determined to cut through a thicket of lies and restore legal limits on domestic surveillance. On the other side, a rapacious desire to "collect it all" -- in secret because the push for transparency is "a little like" Islamic terrorism.

You'll have to decide for yourself which is the more "dangerous" line of thinking.

Washington Examiner columnist Gene Healy is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of "The Cult of the Presidency."

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