N.J. Rep. Rush Holt Wants to Kill the PATRIOT Act

The Jersey Congressman beat a supercomputer at Jeopardy! Can he outsmart the NSA?

A little over two years ago, New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt bested IBM supercomputer Watson in a round of Jeopardy!, $8,600 to the machine’s $6,200. Four other Congress members, along with 75-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings earlier that year, failed to even come close to matching Holt’s accomplishment in out-answering a supercomputer with more than four terabytes of information-packed storage at its disposal. This, perhaps, is partially why bumper stickers reading “My Congressman is a rocket scientist!” dot Central Jersey’s 12th Ward.

Since then, Holt has gone on to become a favorite among his Jersey constituents, most recently beating Newark Mayor Cory Booker in an unscientific straw poll in Sussex County regarding Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s as-yet-vacant Senate seat. Watson, meanwhile, has been probed extensively by the CIA and NSA  in hopes of putting its advanced supercomputing power to recognize patterns to use on the troves of digital information the federal government has been collecting on pretty much everyone these past few years. Given the recent surveillance state revelations courtesy of Edward Snowden, Holt merely won a small battle — Watson and its compatriots are busy quietly winning the war.

With his July 11 announcement in the Asbury Park Press of intent to introduce legislation rescinding both the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendment Act of 2008, it would seem that Holt is up for a more public rematch, so to speak. Invoking Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, Holt condemns the advancement of the NSA’s massive information-collecting scheme as one of those “institutions which have a tendency to destroy [our] civil and political rights.” The result, he concludes, has been an“industrial-scale surveillance and perpetual war mentality that has been foisted on the American people in the name of ‘national security.’” Unfortunately, though, in Holt’s own words he “got lucky” against Watson last time, and the odds appear to be even worse here against a much larger machine.

In the most pessimistic view, Holt’s attempts at repealing what amounts to the backbone of the prevailing surveillance state, not even yet filed, have no chance at passing. After all, the PATRIOT Act has been in effect for 12 years. President Obama, campaigning on a promise to not expand the surveillance powers of the federal government, re-approved both the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendment during his term in office. The NSA, having dumped more than $2 billion into its Utah Data Center, has opened the facility ahead of schedule, beating an initial estimate of September of this year. And, of course, there is an American citizen, his passport revoked, sitting in a Moscow airport waiting for temporary Russian asylum.

The writing, it would seem, is on the wall. The money has been spent, and it’s been a long time since the federal government didn’t have the express interest of “national security” to act out its securo-world voyeuristic fantasy. Power attained isn’t exactly willingly returned, and the NSA isn’t going to back down from a project billions of dollars and years in the making. We are, after all, dealing with a president who, when European allies got wind of U.S. spying in embassy offices, responded by downplaying the snooping with a “hey, everyone does it!” Yet, Holt’s intended political battle seems more than necessary.

Since news began to spread about the collection of digital information about American citizens, there has been a lot of political ire, but not a ton of political action — as often seems to be the case. And while many a politician is willing to denounce (or even outright deny) the federal government’s snooping, precious few seem to be willing to take up what popularly is viewed as a losing battle. But in the days since Holt announced his plan, he’s seen a good amount of online support and even apparently inspired another Congressman, Rep. Justin Amash, to target the NSA with legislation that would defund it’s surveillance programs used against Americans.

But should these measures fail, however likely, they do not represent our final options. With the introduction of legislation specifically targeting institutions that are willfully infringing on Constitutional rights — and more leaks coming every day — this would appear to be just the beginning. At worst, Holt and Amash’s measures fail and inspire future legislation that tips the scale back to a place where liberty and security can coexist.

Or, Holt and his supporters beat the NSA, repeal the PATRIOT Act, and start from square one, where we can then balance privacy and safety. His track record against advanced computer systems is pretty good after all — let’s just hope it translates well into a more serious game of Jeopardy!.