Needles, Haystacks and NSA Snooping: How a Misbegotten Metaphor Helped Defeat Mass Surveillance

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Jun 03, 2015 12:01 AM
Needles, Haystacks and NSA Snooping: How a Misbegotten Metaphor Helped Defeat Mass Surveillance
"Section 215 helps us find a needle in the haystack," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month, referring to the PATRIOT Act provision that the National Security Agency says allows it to scoop up everyone's telephone records. If Congress imposes limits aimed at preventing such mass snooping, the Kentucky Republican warned, "there might not be a haystack at all."

For those who wonder how McConnell lost his battle to renew Section 215 without changes, a plausible answer is that he and his allies picked the wrong metaphor. What they meant to say (I think) was that the NSA needs all the help it can get in the challenging task of identifying terrorists before they attack. What the public heard was a defense of indiscriminate and invasive yet ineffective data collection.

McConnell was by no means the first defender of the NSA's program to seize on the needle-in-a-haystack comparison. The first such reference in the Nexis news database came from Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary.

"If you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack," Bash said during an MSNBC appearance on June 7, 2013. That was a couple of days after stories based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the agency's database.

There followed a pack of figurative needles in a field of proverbial haystacks. On June 11, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., recounted what intelligence officials said at a closed-door congressional briefing: "One of the things that was said ... was, 'Why do you need all of those numbers in a database?' And they said, 'To find a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack.'"

Officials such as Deputy Attorney General James Cole, NSA Director Keith Alexander and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis likewise spoke of locating a sewing implement in a large pile of dried grass. But the more the NSA's advocates talked about needles in haystacks the less the public seemed to support the agency's phone record dragnet.

A January 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of adults opposed "the government's collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts," up from 47 percent in June 2013. Last month a survey commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 60 percent of voters thought "Congress should modify the Patriot Act to limit government surveillance and protect Americans' privacy."

If you do not speak spook, the failure of the agricultural analogy favored by McConnell et al. probably does not surprise you. Usually when someone says a proposal is like looking for a needle in a haystack, he is not recommending it; he is suggesting the idea is misguided and likely to fail.

According to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the phrase dates at least to the early 17th century, when a variation of it -- "as well look for a needle in a bottle of hay" -- appeared in Miguel de Cervantes' novel "Don Quixote." It implied futility then, and it still does.

The needle-in-a-haystack image also highlighted the breadth of the NSA's data grab and the audaciousness of its argument that everyone's phone records were "relevant" to a terrorism investigation because some of them might turn out to be. That reading of Section 215, which authorized the government to obtain a secret court order demanding "any tangible thing" by asserting its relevance, was too much even for Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the main author of the PATRIOT Act.

"This is the difference between using a rifle shot to get the phone records of somebody that we have great suspicion is involved in terrorist activity (and) using a blunderbuss to grab the whole haystack and to try to find the needle in it," Sensenbrenner told the Associated Press in October 2013. There are problems with that metaphor, too, but you get the idea.