Do facts matter when it comes to public debate?
One of the major recent spates of misstatement and subsequent speculation has been generated by the National Security Agency documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Sen. Rand Paul’s talk Wednesday at the University of California’s Berkeley Forum is a good example.
Paul (R-Ky.) told the primarily student audience that “if you own a cellphone, you are under surveillance.” It quickly became clear who he was talking about.
“NSA believes that equal protection means that Americans can be spied upon equally, even Congress,” Paul said.
He made no distinction between the foreign collection program — known as the 702 program, which could involve listening to phone calls or reading e-mails overseas — and the domestic 215 program, the collection of U.S.-based telephone metadata, which does not involve listening to calls.
In no case did Paul mention that the predicate for searching those domestic records is a link to an overseas phone related to a suspected terrorist source, or that overseas, a relationship to collecting foreign intelligence is the requirement.
Paul later said: “Your government is interested in what you’re reading, they are interested [in] what you say on your phone calls, they are interested in what you write in your e-mails. Or even if they say they are not interested, they say the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect any of these records. The NSA is collecting the records of every American.”
The implication is that the agency is collecting what is said in phone calls and written in e-mails, when in fact it is data alone that are being collected on U.S. citizens. The Fourth Amendment does protect what is said in domestic phone conversations.
Having exaggerated what the NSA is accused of doing, Paul backed off at one point, saying, “Even if no abuse of phone records has occurred so far, we must limit government power to prevent abuse in the future.”
Early in his talk, Paul referred to the conflict between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA as an example of the agency spying on Congress. They are battling over actions related to an internal agency document involving waterboarding and other interrogation activities.
“I look into the eyes of senators, and I think I see real fear,” Paul said. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think I perceive fear of an intelligence community that’s drunk with power and unrepentant and uninclined to relinquish power.”
A lot of what Paul said at Berkeley appeared to have come from his imagination. Overall, the presentation recalled for me an old quote from H.L. Mencken:
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
Paul was not the only politician playing with facts in recent days.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said one response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into Crimea could be to “reconsider putting our missile defense system back into the Czech Republic and Poland, as we once planned. And as you recall, we pulled that out as a gift to Russia.”
President Obama in September 2009 did change the George W. Bush administration’s plan for a missile defense system against Iran to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. He replaced it with a better and earlier-deployed system now being installed in Poland and Romania.
The Czechs, who were to get an X-band radar, decided that they did not want a lesser radar, as proposed in the Obama system. The Romanians replaced them and will host radar and missile interceptors, the first to be operational in 2015.
Interceptors in Poland will be deployed starting in 2018 under the Obama plan, about the same time as under the Bush plan, but they will be larger and faster, and there will be more than the 10 contemplated by Bush.
All this has hardly been a secret. On March 18, Vice President Biden announced in Poland that the missile defense system was on track with the 2018 initial operational date.
In fact, in September 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote in a New York Times op-ed that under the earlier plan, which he as Bush’s defense secretary had proposed in 2006, “there would have been no missile-defense system able to protect against Iranian missiles until at least 2017 — and likely much later” because of initial delays in getting the Polish and Czech legislatures to agree to host the system.
Gates described Obama’s system as “far more effective” than what he’d recommended to the Bush administration.
None of this has stopped GOP leaders such as Romney from calling for a return to the Bush plan. On March 10, for example, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said on Fox News that in response to the Russian takeover of Crimea, the United States should “restart the missile defense system that Obama canceled in order to placate Putin in the Czech Republic and Poland.”
That same night, Fox contributor Karl Rove called on Obama to “reinstitute the missile defense facilities that we withdrew at no price to him — to Putin — but a big price to us and to the Czech Republic and Poland.”
“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored,” said British writer Aldous Huxley.
For previous Fine Print columns, visit washingtonpost.com/fedpage.