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Patriot Act Sunset: A Symbolic Victory, Nothing More

Imagine your football team trails 42-0, and with time winding down in the fourth quarter, the kicker boots a 52-yard field goal.

A great victory?


You can call it a moral victory.

You can call it symbolic victory.

But you didn’t win.

That scenario serves as a pretty good analogy to the expiration of Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act at midnight.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of what Sen. Rand Paul accomplished in the Senate. He forced the sunset and it provided some pretty good political theater. I’m glad to see the issue pushed to the forefront, and it pleases me that advocates of privacy put some proverbial points on the board.

But in some ways, it concerns me, because I’ve already seen a number of people declaring the sunset of Sec. 215 a “huge victory.”

It isn’t.

No more than kicking a field goal in the waning minutes of a 42-0 football game counts as a big victory. It feels good. It generates a sense of optimism. It puts some points on the board.

But it you can’t call it anything more than a symbolic victory. It does nothing to change the ultimate outcome of the game. Right now, as I type, the NSA continues to spy on Americans without warrants. Nothing changed at midnight. As I’ve pointed out on a number of occasions, Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act provides the legal authority for just one of many spy programs. In fact, several former NSA employees turned whistleblowers say much of the illegal spying happens under EO 12333.

The fact so many people seem to think that spying suddenly ended at midnight confirms something I’ve been worried about for quite a while. I’m afraid Americans will think Congress solved the problem.

It didn’t.

Most pundits agree that Congress will resurrect the temporarily defunct “authorities” under Sec. 215 when it passes the USA Freedom Act. The bill does makes some progress toward reform, but many privacy advocates admit it falls far short of protecting Americans from spying. And again – I can’t emphasize this enough – even without the Patriot Act, the NSA and other federal agencies have plenty of other justifications for spying on you.

So, I feel obligated to throw cold water on the party. I don’t want Americans to go on their merry way believing Rand Paul stopped NSA spying. By all means, enjoy the moral victory. Enjoy the theater. Enjoy putting some political points on our side of the scoreboard. But don’t for one second think anything that happened at midnight that practically changed reality.

Spies are still spying.

A Wikileaks tweet shortly before midnight sums it up nicely.

At OffNow, we plan to keep fighting until we force them the follow the Constitution and respect our privacy. Nothing else counts as victory.


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