Time's Zeke Miller got a pretty amazing story: the Republican National Committee passed a resolution broadly condemning the NSA's surveillance tools at its winter meeting on Friday. The only catch is that the resolution got some pretty important details wrong.
Titled "Resolution to Renounce the National Security Agency’s Surveillance Program," the document walks through privacy advocates' critique of the NSA's toolkit. This is "the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens" ("as far as we know") and it "violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment." The resolution — which carries little weight beyond symbolism, it's important to note — demands changes to the Patriot Act's Section 215, which is used by the government to authorize the sweeping collection of data about Americans' phone calls. It also calls for "a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying" and immediate action blocking "current unconstitutional surveillance programs." It's an energetic exhortation, to say the least, one that it's easy to picture Rand Paul reading aloud at increasing volume while nodding.
Here's the problem: Whoever wrote the resolution thinks the phone metadata collection, this "dragnet program," is the same as PRISM. And he or she thinks that PRISM includes "surveillance of U.S. citizens on a vast scale and monitors searching habits of virtually every American on the internet" — as the introductory WHEREAS states.
Neither of those things is true. PRISM was one of the first code-named programs revealed following the leaks by Edward Snowden. It is a system that the NSA uses in concert with technology companies (though they are squeamish about how the relationship works) to give the agency access to accounts on the companies' systems. The phone metadata collection — which is both most of what the RNC's complaint is about and the tool that's most under fire, including from the 9/11 Commission's privacy review panel — ain't PRISM. PRISM is apparently authorized under amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; the phone metadata collection is authorized, as above, by the Patriot Act.
What's more, PRISM is not allowed to explicitly collect information on Americans, as part of the protections under the Fourth Amendment. It does reel in some Americans' information, but that's what's considered "incidental" collection, and is apparently sealed off from the NSA's searching system.
The broader point of the resolution is clear: an increasingly libertarian-friendly Republican Party is unhappy that the NSA's surveillance tools collect massive amounts of information. (No mention is made that the tools came into being under Republican President George W. Bush.) The well-intentioned resolution may actually give fodder to the current president and other defenders of the NSA's surveillance, who've continually argued that the public doesn't completely understand the things it hates. Neither, it seems, does the RNC.
Update, 1:15 p.m.: MSNBC reports that the author of the resolution is Nevada Committeewoman Diana Orrock. The site's Benjy Sarlin spoke to her by phone.
“I have to thank Edward Snowden for bringing forth the blatant trampling of our First and Fourth Amendment rights in the guise of security,” she said. “Something had to be said. Something had to be done.”