Tom Cotton's repugnant Paris fear-mongering: Why his new surveillance legislation should have you outraged

The freshman senator runs roughshod over the Constitution after a horrific terror attack. Sound familiar?

Published November 19, 2015 10:56AM (EST)

  (AP/Danny Johnston)
(AP/Danny Johnston)

It never fails in this country. Some part of the world experiences a horrific terrorist attack, and one of our esteemed legislative leaders almost pulls a hamstring rushing to the nearest microphone to explain why we need to give up a few more civil liberties so that the government can keep us safe.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is the latest offender. The far-right conservative is using last Friday’s slaughter in Paris to introduce the Liberty Through Strength Act, which would delay the upcoming implementation of the USA Freedom Act. (I look forward to a super PAC called Liberty Through Strength raising money for Cotton’s inevitable presidential run in 2020.)

The USA Freedom Act was passed in June to curtail the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program, which a federal appeals court had recently ruled unconstitutional. That program, authorized under the Patriot Act after 9/11, had allowed the NSA for years to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk and store them in enormous databases. Critics had fought for years to end the program, the scope of which came to light with the leak of NSA documents by Edward Snowden. The court’s decision was an enormous victory for privacy advocates and decried by right-wingers, who claimed it would make it harder for the nation’s intelligence services to track potential terrorists.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the phone records being hoovered up by the NSA would instead remain stored with the wireless carriers who operate the nation’s cellular networks. The government could only query those databases with specific warrants and requests related to investigations. Since the court ordered the original program shut down by the end of November, this new program is slated to take effect on Dec. 1.

Then along came Paris, and now Tom Cotton would like Americans to endure the unconstitutional invasion of their privacy for a while longer because ARGH GLARG TERRORISTS WANT TO KILL YOU IN YOUR BED.

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week are a terrible reminder of the threats we face every day. And it made clear that the President's empty policy of tough talk and little action isn't working against ISIS. Regrettably, these policy follies also extend to the Intelligence Community, whose hands were tied by the passage of the USA FREEDOM ACT. This legislation…takes us from a constitutional, legal, and proven NSA collection architecture to an untested, hypothetical one that will be less effective. And this transition will occur less than two weeks from today, at a time when our threat level is incredibly high.

There is no part of the phrase “constitutional, legal, and proven NSA collection architecture” that is true, at least according to the court ruling from May. Which one would expect a trained lawyer to understand. Sen. Cotton should request a tuition refund from Harvard Law School.

The Liberty Through Strength Act would keep the NSA’s old program – again, it can’t be said often enough that this program has been deemed unconstitutional by a court of law – in operation through Jan. 31, 2017. How convenient that it ends just after President Selfie Stick leaves office and new President Donald Trump can demand Congress pass another extension.

Cotton’s bill is the perfect example of the fear and panic that seems to keep overtaking our nation during crises. Time and again, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001, our leaders have caved in to this dread at the expense of the civil liberties of the citizens. There are plenty of people who will still argue that the fears of the ACLU and privacy advocates about the NSA’s program were overblown, but at the end of the day it was those same privacy advocates fighting a long battle through the legal system to get a federal court to agree that the program was unconstitutional and should end. Whatever people think of the merits of the case and the NSA’s data collection, this is how our system of checks and balances is supposed to work.

Then some ISIS nutbags shot up Paris, so here comes Tom Cotton, an elected senator (and love object of the always-wrong warmonger Bill Kristol, which really tells us everything we need to know about him) to tell us: Screw the system, screw the ACLU, screw the courts, screw that Constitution thingy that my party is always accusing the president of failing to defend. Just let us suspend your civil liberties a little longer, and then we’ll stop, cross my heart and pinky swear.

That Cotton’s legislation is backed by Marco Rubio and his presidential ambitions is the icing on the cake. He and Sen. Rand Paul will have something new to talk about at the next GOP debate.

Luckily the Liberty Through Strength Act has little chance of passing the Senate or ever seeing Obama’s desk. It’s cheap messaging for Cotton and his neocon allies, a useful tool to demagogue in the run-up to next year’s election. That may be the most despicable part of the whole spectacle.

By Gary Legum

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