The now famous dust-up between Rand Paul and Chris Christie during Thursday’s Republican debate over our fourth amendment rights versus national security was a microcosm of the one held nationally in the months leading up to the PATRIOT Act’s renewal in June. Christie maintained that its renewal, minus the controversial section 215 would be insufficient to keep our country safe. Paul argued that the mass collection of phone data by the NSA was a violation of the fourth amendment. Christie’s seemed to suggest that you needed everyone’s data to figure out who the bad guys were. He won the argument on stage by most accounts, but winning an argument is not the same as proving you are right.
Christie was suggesting that the nation needs a dragnet in which all citizens’ phone records are caught up. That is the very definition of a general warrant, the kind that the framers of the Constitution expressly sought to forbid by enacting the fourth amendment. Moreover, the trade of liberty for security he advocates is just not worth it. To put it into business terms, the return on investment, in this case, how much liberty we give up in exchange for security does not balance out. At best, mass data collection, (which still exists) so far has only proven itself as a supplement to good intelligence and police-work, not a good source intelligence on its own. First, there is just too much data. We can’t look at it all, it’s impossible. Even if we know of someone with terrorist ties, someone presumably that the NSA or FBI could easily obtain a warrant for, even that is not always enough to prevent terrorist attacks. Such was the case with the Boston bombers, an act of terror done by individuals known to have overseas terror ties. We certainly did not get our lost liberties worth of security on that day.
Some suspicion of an impending act, or someone being radicalized has to come first, then you can start searching for evidence to support your suspicions using lawful methods. The Founders were quite clear they did not want it to be the other way around. The suspicion must precede the search, period. Trolling trough the phone records of millions of innocent people in hopes of stumbling upon someone doing something wrong isn’t just bad for liberty, it’s a waste of resources. If on the other hand, law enforcement or intelligence picks up an inkling that someone is up to no good, the records are still available. Our God-given rights, including our right to privacy is one of the very things are fighting this war on terror for in the first place, let’s not forget that.