The last thing McConnell wanted to have to do: Defending NSA surveillance programs

Last week, a federal appeals court threw Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a curveball when it ruled that the National Security Agency’s phone records collection program could not simply be reauthorized by the Congress as part of a renewal of PATRIOT Act provisions.

The court did not rule that these programs would have to be discontinued, but it did find that their authorization must be more explicit than McConnell’s preferred. He had hoped to simply reauthorize the extension of that program without much potentially perilous debate.

On its face, it makes little sense that McConnell would so fear a public debate surrounding the reauthorization of this program. Though this and the NSA’s sister PRISM metadata collection and warehousing programs were once controversial, they have become less feared by the public as the threats of Islamic terrorism and geopolitical instability have grown more acute. Moreover, the House has already agreed to a bipartisan package of reforms to the NSA’s data collection programs.

Nevertheless, McConnell and his pro-NSA GOP allies in the upper chamber of Congress hoped to avoid having to defend this program in public and on the record. On Sunday, the Senate majority leader responded to the appeals court’s ruling by addressing the pathway forward.

The counterterrorism measure, Section 215, is “an important tool to prevent the next terrorist attack,” McConnell said on Sunday at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, according to Reuters.

McConnell and other hawkish Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) support extending the NSA program, which is currently set to expire June 1 without changes.

“The nation is better off with an extension of the Patriot Act than not, but we’ll see where the votes go,” McConnell said Sunday.

For those who back the NSA program, that tepid pronouncement shouldn’t inspire much confidence. By contrast, opponents of the NSA’s bulk data collection programs have been emboldened by the court’s ruling.

McConnell hopes to secure a short-term extension of the law while the Senate negotiates reforms to the program, but that extension could face a bipartisan filibuster from NSA surveillance opponents Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). “With their objections, each short-term extension would take up to a week of the Senate’s time, pushing aside other legislative matters,” The New York Times reported. “House leaders will also be displeased with that plan.”

It is an odd and yet perfectly predictable pattern of behavior for Mitch McConnell to treat a blessing in disguise like a curse. Given the prevailing conditions, McConnell should welcome the opportunity to defend these programs.

A recent Pew Research Center survey suggests that the public is less wary about the monitoring of the communications of suspected terrorists and foreign citizens than they are of average American citizens. Moreover, though it might be an outlier, a USA Today poll released in January indicated that the constituency supposedly predisposed to back Rand Paul over any other Republican, young voters age 18 – 29, have a favorable impression of the NSA. That same survey found that an outright majority of Americans view the NSA favorably.

Terrorism’s threat had become somewhat abstract when Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the government’s surveillance programs in 2013. But today, the rise of Islamist terrorist proto-state groups in the Middle East and Africa and the return of Islamic terror attacks to Western nations have heightened the public’s awareness of the terrorist threat. Though McConnell might not be the best messenger, the NSA’s defenders should relish the opportunity to support these programs in the current political environment. Of course, it is never wise to underestimate the GOP Senate majority’s ability to turn an opportunity into an obstacle.