The Sanders Letter: Is This the Dumbest NSA-Hating Stunt Yet? And Did Ted Cruz Fall For It?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has written a letter to NSA’s director, asking whether the agency has spied on members of Congress.  It sounds like he’s uncovered a scandal, until you read the fine print.  It turns out that Sen. Sanders is simply asking whether NSA collects the metadata for calls made by members of Congress, and every sentient American already knows that answer: NSA’s program collects metadata for all US calls.  So Sen. Sanders’s letter isn’t an inquiry, it’s a stunt.

Fonz_jumping_the_shark (2)The Guardian is an enthusiastic participant in the stunt, with Spencer Ackerman writing that NSA “did not deny collecting communications from legislators of the US Congress.” Well, duh.  Unfortunately, it looks as though Ted Cruz, who so far has avoided the worst fever swamps of NSA paranoia, also fell for the stunt, tweeting “@SenSanders asks ? millions of Americans would like answered: Are any law-abiding citizens safe from NSA spying?”

At the risk of being repetitive, Sen. Cruz, we’ve all known the answer for months.  NSA’s 215 program collects all domestic call metadata, and it protects all that data by requiring that any search of the data be based on a reasonable suspicion of terrorism.  All means all.  All Americans’ metadata is collected.  All Americans’ privacy is protected by the minimization requirements.  Sen. Sanders’s stunt adds precisely nothing to what we know about the program, or to the debate.

But as long as the press covers the stunt as though it were a story, I think we can predict the next batch of letters that Sen. Sanders will send to NSA:

  • Is the agency “spying on” Sarah Palin?
  • Is the agency “spying on” Hilary Clinton?
  • Is the agency “spying on” the Rev. Billy Graham?
  • Is the agency “spying on” Clint Eastwood?
  • Is the agency “spying on” Oprah Winfrey?
  • Is the agency “spying on” Angeline Jolie — and all those cute little kids, too? What about Brad?
  • Would the agency be “spying on” Helen Keller if she were still alive?
  • Was the agency spying on the Fonz when he jumped the shark, along with this story?


NOTE:  As usual, comments may be sent to

COMMENTS: An exchange with Brett Bellmore:

Bellmore: The problem is, they’re not “spying”, they’re spying. Scratch the sneer quotes, it’s actual spying. I suppose the fair thing to say is, “If it’s ok to subject the general population to this, why should Congress be exempt?” But the obvious answer is, “It’s NOT ok to subject the general population to this!” Our government has gone and recreated the general warrant. 4th amendment doctrine has finally drifted to the point of permitting exactly what the 4th amendment was adopted to prohibit.

Baker: Is it spying if no one ever sees the records?  Is Google “spying” on this message?  Or is it spying on this message?  Or is that an unhelpful way to discuss the question of free email and context-sensitive ads?  Are cameras in public places spying on Americans? What about the collection of travel reservation data for people entering the US?  That’s all being gathered on everyone, not just suspects, and much of it is not made public by the individuals concerned.  I don’t think the best way to think about these things is to call them all spying. That’s just burying your conclusion in the question.

And I note that the courts have mostly disagreed with your constitutional analysis.
Bellmore: Is it not spying, if the records are merely winnowed out by a software agent instead of a human being, but with the same end result? I think  you’re downplaying how much software can do today. Yes, yes, and yes, it’s all spying. I think that’s the best way to look at these things, if you’re not trying to make excuses for a secret police system the Stasi would have envied.
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