By Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Joni Ernst
Last month’s brutal massacre in Paris and the ISIS-connected terrorist attack in California underscore just how dangerous the world has become during the Obama administration. The FBI currently has active investigations of suspected terrorist sympathizers in every FBI field office across our country.
Now, more than ever, we need the intelligence gathering tools necessary to uncover plots and identify our enemies. That is why we are sponsoring the Liberty Through Strength Act II—legislation that will give our intelligence community the capability to protect the American people.
Earlier this year, President Obama unfortunately pushed for and Congress passed the “USA FREEDOM Act,” which greatly curtailed the ability of our intelligence professionals to identify and track terrorist communications. Many voted for this flawed bill because at the time, it was the only alternative to a complete expiration of important terrorist surveillance tools. However, doing so greatly compromised other programs that are vital to our fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
From longstanding foes like Al Qaeda to new ones like ISIS, the United States faces an array of evolving challenges at home and abroad. Our enemies can hide their communications, pass through many borders with ease, and – because President Obama’s inaction has allowed new terrorist safe havens to sprout from Libya to Syria to Afghanistan – plan and stage attacks against the United States and our friends and allies.
As our enemies’ capabilities to strike Americans have grown, our capability to respond has diminished. Edward Snowden, mistakenly lauded by some as a hero, not only betrayed this country by releasing highly classified information and defecting to Russia, but spread dangerous misinformation about programs that helped keep Americans safe—namely, the telephony metadata program.
By definition, metadata are non-content data. Metadata consist of phone numbers dialed, as well as the date and duration of calls, not the calls themselves nor even the names associated with the calls. The metadata program was useful not because it allowed the intelligence community to listen in on conversations, which was not possible under this program, but because it allowed the NSA to connect the dots. Searching for the number of a suspect reveals the phone numbers the suspect called and when, and the numbers which those people called. This allowed the government to map terrorist networks. The actual identity of the individuals are not known until after the numbers were passed to the FBI, who in turn uses its normal investigative processes for identification.
The metadata collected by the NSA were also far less sensitive and extensive than the information that supermarkets, Internet and credit card companies, and others in the private sector collect on Americans on a daily basis. The metadata program placed stringent privacy controls on the use of this data. Any official that failed to follow the law was subject to discipline and prosecution, but there was not a single documented case of intentional abuse of the program during its entire existence.
But in the coming months, President Obama will press delete on all the metadata we have collected, and has blocked intelligence professionals from using the database for operational purposes. This means that after Paris and after San Bernardino, we will not be able to use the database to map the networks of the terrorists who killed so many. Already investigators have reportedly been unable to access some of the phone records that they sought for the jihadists who murdered fourteen Americans last week.
By tearing up this phonebook, President Obama and his allies in Congress are unilaterally disarming the United States in the fight against terrorism and, at a critical moment, stripping a critical tool from the very people in the intelligence and law enforcement communities whose duty it is to keep us safe. Keeping our current database of metadata and allowing it to be queried—as the Liberty Through Strength Act II calls for— will provide investigators the ability to hone in on critical information rapidly and devote those resources to the right targets.
But we must also do more. That’s why this bill will also make permanent vital and uncontroversial counterterrorism tools. One—the roving wiretap tool—ensures that the government can maintain wiretaps on suspected terrorists, even if the terrorists change their phone number. A second ensures that the government can use counterterror tools originally meant for foreign agents on suspected “lone-wolf” domestic terrorists who do not have formal ties to foreign powers.
How many attacks on the homeland will we have to endure before the president understands that lawful intelligence tools subject to judicial review are necessary to win the long war against radical Islamic jihadism? Our law enforcement and intelligence communities need these authorities to carry out the government’s first and fundamental duty: keeping Americans safe.