Open thread: Funeral for the Patriot Act

Cue the Clint Eastwood western showdown music. The Senate is getting set to go back into session on a Sunday afternoon to either save the republic from terrorists or save the republic from its own government, depending who you ask. This particular bit of beltway theater is one of the stranger ones we’re likely to witness this year, if only because it finds GOP foreign policy hawks largely lining up on the same side as President Obama. And being fearful of looking too soft on ISIS as we move into an election season, many Democrats who might previously have squawked a bit louder about domestic spying are quietly registering a few grumbles about keeping the spying agencies out of our bedrooms, but generally siding with the president as well.

On the other side there is… Rand Paul. And along with the Kentucky senator are an army of strident, Big L Libertarians who are ready to Stand With Rand, or whatever the bumper sticker of the week reads. (Oh, and Bernie Sanders too… talk about strange bedfellows.) Paul’s argument largely centers on how our forefathers would be aghast to see the sorry state of liberty today, while his opponents generally make snarky remarks about how this is part of his lagging presidential bid.

In the run-up to this evening’s Senate showdown over National Security Agency surveillance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has vowed to end the agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records, even as President Obama is urging passage of a compromise bill that would shut down that NSA program but also preserve several other spying powers.

The Senate has only hours to act. At midnight Sunday, the surveillance authorities — all created under the USA Patriot Act — are due to lapse.

“So what’s the problem?” Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “A small group of senators is standing in the way. And unfortunately, some folks are trying to use this debate to score political points. But this shouldn’t and can’t be about politics. This is a matter of national security.”

John Brennan offered the CIA perspective on the subject earlier in the day and it was pretty much what you’d expect.

CIA Director John Brennan said the expiration of government-surveillance programs at midnight Sunday could make the country less safe from a terrorist attack and blamed “political grandstanding” in the Senate for the current legislative standoff.

Mr. Brennan, in an interview that aired Sunday, also said the programs “really have helped stop attacks,” although he didn’t cite specific incidents.

“The tools that the government has used over the last dozen years to keep this country safe are integral to making sure that we’re able to stop terrorists in their tracks,” he told CBS ’s “Face the Nation.”

This is your thread, and it will most likely take well into the evening until we have a final answer one way or the other, but the same nagging questions hang over this Senate session today which have for weeks. There seems to be nearly universal agreement on both sides of the aisle that the data collections programs under discussion are needed to keep the country safe. At the same time, nobody seems to be able to come up with an example of where they’ve done anything concrete to stop a terrorist plot beyond catching one guy who sent a few thousand dollars to Jordan. So the question remains… are there more examples which they simply can’t tell us about or is it really not producing any results? And even if it’s not, is it worth sticking with the program in case it does find something in the future?

On the other side of the coin, it’s true that Rand Paul is running for president. And some might fairly speculate that he’s kind of been running for president since the day he was sworn in as a senator. But it’s also not as if this is a sudden change of tune for him. He’s been railing against government intrusion since he was trailing around behind his dad, so is it really fair to attack this as a campaign stunt on such a central issue?

I’ll leave those questions to you. We may or may not know anything by the time I call it a night.