Anti-Terror Tools Protect Americans
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the following remarks on the Senate floor regarding a 60-day extension of FISA:
“Following the attacks of September 11, the United States improved its laws and legal authorities in an effort to better understand the terrorist threat and — rather than treat it as a crime to be handled by civilian prosecution — to combat it as a matter of warfare. But that doesn’t mean Al Qaeda and its affiliates stood still. The terrorist threat metastasized into regional affiliates such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and AQIM.
“We’ve all seen the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which, despite coalition air attacks and Iraqi military ground operations, seized Ramadi last weekend. Though ISIL has broken from core Al Qaeda, it’s emblematic of how the threat has evolved.
“Last week, the Director of the FBI explained how ISIL, operating from safe havens within Syria, is now using social media to radicalize Americans by making contact through Twitter and then directing them to encrypted venues. Moreover, through the publication of online magazines, Al Qaeda and ISIL are able to radicalize recruits, and reveal the tactics needed for small scale attacks here at home. These tactics, along with the information gained by terrorist networks from the unlawful disclosure of classified information by Edward Snowden, challenge counterterrorism officials in their efforts to detect terrorist plotting and communications.
“This all comes at a moment of elevated threats to the American people.
“Let me read you something the L.A. Times recently reported:
Alarmed about the growing threat from Islamic State, the Obama administration has dramatically stepped up warnings of potential terrorist attacks on American soil after several years of relative calm.
Behind the scenes, U.S. authorities have raised defenses at U.S. military bases, put local police forces on alert and increased surveillance at the nation's airports, railroads, shopping malls, energy plants and other potential targets. Driving the unease are FBI arrests of at least 30 Americans on terrorism-related charges this year in an array of ‘lone wolf’ plots, none successful, but nearly all purportedly inspired by Islamic State propaganda or appeals.
“I’d ask that this article be included in the record at the conclusion of my remarks.
“We need to recognize that terrorist tactics and the nature of the threat have changed, and that at a moment of elevated threat it would be a mistake to take from our intelligence community any of the valuable tools needed to build a complete picture of terrorist networks and their plans — such as the bulk data collection program of section 215. The intelligence community needs these tools to protect Americans.
“I’d like to quote the observations that someone intimately familiar with this program made in the aftermath of the unauthorized leaks of classified material by Edward Snowden.
“‘This program does not involve the content of phone calls or the names of people making calls,’ he said.
“‘Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers, and the times and lengths of calls, metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.’
“He then described why the program was necessary.
“‘The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11,’ he said. ‘One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known Al Qaida safe house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.’
“He concluded by noting that ‘The Review Group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused. And I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.’
“The person who made these observations was President Obama, and he made them just last year.
“Unfortunately, there is now a huge gap between the capabilities the President rightly recognized as being necessary for our intelligence professionals, and the legislation he’s endorsing today. The untried — and as of yet, non-existent — bulk-collection system envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe. At worst, it might not work at all due to — among many other problems — the lack of a requirement for telecommunications providers retain the data to begin with.
“Last week, the Obama Administration briefed Senators on the current bulk data program under section 215.
“Senators were impressed with the safeguards built into the current program. And they were impressed that there has not been one instance of abuse of this program.
“But many Senators were disturbed by the Administration’s inability to answer basic, yet critical, questions about the alternate bulk-data system that would be set up at some point under the legislation the Administration now supports.
“The Administration could not guarantee whether a new system would work as well as the current system. And the Administration could not guarantee whether there would be much, if any, data available to be analyzed under a new system, given the lack of a data-retention requirement in the legislation.
“And despite what the Administration told us just last week about its inability to guarantee that this non-existent system could even be built in time, it did an about-face earlier this week — sort of. The administration had the Director of the NSA write that the non-existent system could be built in time IF the providers cooperated in building it.
“The problem, of course, is that the providers have made it abundantly clear that they will not commit to retaining the data for any period of time as contemplated by the House-passed bill unless they are legally required to do so. And there is no such requirement in the bill.
“For example, one provider has said the following: “[We are] not prepared to commit to voluntarily retain documents for any particular period of time pursuant to the proposed USA Freedom Act if not otherwise required by law.”
“So, far from addressing the concerns that the many have had about the USA Freedom Act, the Administration in its letter only underscored them. It said that the only way this non-existent system could even be built in time is if the providers cooperate. But the providers have made it abundantly clear that they will not cooperate, and there is nothing — absolutely nothing — in the bill that would require them to do so. This is just as cynical as the letter from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence that assured us they would let us know about any problems after the current program was replaced with a non-existent system.
“This is beyond troubling. We should not establish an alternate system that contains a glaring hole in its ability to function, namely the complete absence of any requirement for data retention.
“I have begun the legislative process to advance a 60-day extension of section 215 and the other two authorities that will expire soon.
“This extension will allow for the Intelligence Committee to continue its efforts to produce a compromise bill we can send to the House that does not destroy an important counterterrorism tool that's needed to protect American lives.”
Related Issues: Iraq, Syria, National Security, Al Qaeda, ISIL, War on Terror