The Paris terror attacks have triggered calls to extend a highly contentious program under which the National Security Agency conducts sweeping surveillance of Americans’ phone records and other electronic communications. Backers of the campaign to renew the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which is set to expire on Nov. 30, say the U.S. needs to step up security measures, not relax them, in light of evidence that the Islamic State group intends to bring its campaign of terror to the U.S.
“I think we need to restore the metadata program, which was part of the Patriot Act,” Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Monday on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. “I think that was a useful tool to keep us safe and also to protect civil liberties.”
Most of the Patriot Act, broad security legislation championed by former President George W. Bush -- Jeb’s brother -- following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, expired May 31, replaced by the USA Freedom Act. The Freedom Act places stricter limits on government surveillance than its predecessor. But Section 215 was grandfathered in place to Nov. 30, 2015. Among other things, it authorizes the NSA to collect so-called metadata on all mobile or landline phone calls, including the time and place of calls made and the numbers dialed. The NSA has said it did not record the contents of the calls.
Jeb Bush isn’t the only GOPer who wants to see Section 215 reauthorized. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has repeatedly said that its expiration would make the country more vulnerable to attack. “Section 215 helps us find a needle in the haystack,” he said on the Senate floor in May. “But under the USA Freedom Act, there might not be a haystack at all.”
Front-runners Weigh In
Donald Trump, the front-runner among Republic candidates, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics poll, has previously said he’s OK with the NSA holding Americans’ phone records, as long as the program is subject to judicial oversight. “I propose that a court, which is available any time on any day, is created to issue individual rulings on when this metadata can be accessed,” Trump told the Daily Signal. Meanwhile Ben Carson, who is running a close second to Trump, has said he is vehemently opposed to data collection by the NSA.
Among Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who holds a substantial lead in the polls over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, originally voted for the Patriot Act in October 2001 but later said she was concerned by the NSA’s use of the legislation to stash Americans’ phone records. Calls to the Clinton campaign were not immediately returned.
Writing in Time magazine earlier this year, Sanders said the data collection program should be ditched. “Do we really want to live in a country where the NSA gathers data on virtually every single phone call ... including as many as 5 billion cell phone records per day? I don’t.”
Privacy advocates say the Paris attacks show that sweeping, mass surveillance programs are not particularly effective in combating terrorism, and so their intrusiveness into ordinary citizens’ daily lives cannot be justified on national security grounds.
“There is not a single instance where the bulk metadata program directly contributed to thwarting a terrorist attack,” Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told International Business Times. “Proposals to reinstate this ineffective program … ignore the overwhelming evidence that the nationwide bulk metadata program was not an effective intelligence tool."
Just months before the attacks last week that left 129 people dead and more than 350 wounded, France’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to give the government broad authority to conduct sweeping electronic surveillance of citizens, in many cases without a court order. Among other things, authorities can monitor terror suspects phone calls without a judicial warrant, and Internet Service Providers in France must install “black boxes” that can collect Internet users’ metadata and share it with law enforcement upon request.
The move came in response to the January terrorist attack in Paris on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and surrounding areas, which left 17 dead and more than a dozen wounded. A group affiliated with al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
Despite the broad measures, French authorities failed to detect a plot that experts say likely required months of careful coordination and planning across national boundaries. Opponents of mass surveillance say the large volume of data generated by the French or the NSA metadata can actually make it more difficult to detect plots.
Whether or not Congress introduces new legislation that grants similar authority to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the federal government can continue to legally monitor large swaths of domestic communications through other means, including Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. While it’s meant to authorize the NSA to monitor the communications of foreign nationals abroad, critics say the agency has adopted an overly broad interpretation under which it routinely sniffs out the contents of domestic communications, including phone calls, emails and instant messages.
The debate comes amid heightened concerns over where ISIS might strike next. CIA Director John Brennan said Monday that he expects the group to continue to strike at targets in the West, including in the U.S. Said Brennan, who spoke Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: “I certainly would not consider [Friday's Paris attacks] a one-off event."