The NSA is no longer using its bulk metadata program to get phone information on everyday Americans. The program shut down earlier this morning as part of the USA Freedom Act which Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed over the summer. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is pretty pleased the program’s over and done with.
“This is a victory for everyone who believes in protecting both American security and Americans’ constitutional rights. Today the NSA is shutting down a mass surveillance program that needlessly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day, without making our country any safer.”
Not everyone agrees the USA Freedom Act went far enough. Michigan Congressman Justin Amash wrote on Facebook in May how the law instead requires phone companies to keep the data and the government can ask for certain terms.
The bill’s sponsors, and unfortunately some outside advocacy groups, wrongly claim that H.R. 2048 ends “bulk” collection. It’s true that the bill ends the phone dragnet as we currently know it—by having the phone companies themselves hold, search, and analyze certain data at the request of the government, which is worse in many ways given the broader set of data the companies hold—but H.R. 2048 actually expands the statutory basis for the large-scale collection of most data.
H.R. 2048 does this by authorizing the government to order the production of records based upon a “specific selection term” (i.e., like a search term used in a search engine).
Rand Paul expressed similar concerns when he took to the Senate floor in May for a talk-a-thon which briefly let the PATRIOT Act expire. His annoyance was over a decision by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to not allow any amendments to the bill, which may have strengthened privacy. Paul has a point because there is concern the government could just plug in “Verizon” or “AT&T” into the search terms and collect data there. There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy on the issue, with Reason magazine suggesting that isn’t the case. The USA Freedom Act text itself seems vague, but obviously satisfied enough in the federal government to get it made law. But this doesn’t mean everything is kosher when it comes to keeping the government out of private records. There’s been a pretty big push from certain hawks in the GOP to re-activate the program, based on the Paris terror attacks. Via Fox News:
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that investigators in France and Belgium found a cellphone number, then were able to see other numbers to which it had contacted, thwarting another attack and leading to at least a dozen arrests.
“I’m not sure that we know the full extent of what we’ve learned to this point, but any time you can take electronics and use those selectors, it’s beneficial to the world’s intelligence community,” the Republican lawmaker said. “And the United States made a real mistake when they eliminated this program.”
Burr is ignoring the fact the NSA can still get information from phone companies if they suspect someone is involved in terrorism. He’s also ignoring the fact authorities can still make mistakes. Belgian police had Salah Abdeslam under surveillance, and he was still able to get into Paris for the attacks. The Russians warned the FBI about the Tsarnaev duo and they were still able to carry out the Boston bombing. Burr’s suggestion the USA Freedom Act tosses out the baby with the bathwater is highly suspect, and unfortunately what happens when fear starts reigning in politics. There’s no proof the NSA spying program has successfully stopped any terrorist attack, even though its supporters have liked to float the “54 terrorist attacks thwarted” number. The problem is NSA Director General Keith Alexander had to walk back that claim in 2013. Via Propublica:
Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Alexander on the issue at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?” Leahy said at the hearing. “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Alexander replied, without elaborating.
So 13 may have been stopped by NSA spying, yet it appears the intelligence community has only made two of them public. So the science is far from settled that NSA spying has actually kept the U.S. safe. The intelligence agencies get enough money and should really learn to work together to fight terrorist plots. It’s understandable why people are afraid about terrorism and the threat to America. But, at the same time, there’s a very delicate balance between freedom and security. What people like Richard Burr, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton are pushing isn’t freedom, and may not even be actual security. It needs to be resisted at all costs.