Senate Republicans Already Blaming Anti-Surveillance Movement For Terrorist Attacks



Despite evidence that shows that mass surveillance has done little to thwart terrorist attacks, Senate Republicans are pushing to reopen discussions on the Patriot Act in the wake of the deadly incidents in Paris and San Bernardino.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the AP on Wednesday that the Senate may revive the National Security Agency’s wire-tapping authority after voting to end it earlier this year. The issue, which previously divided the Senate and has split the GOP candidates running for the presidency, has been launched back into the national conversation as the candidates focus on national security following the recent terrorist attacks.

“There could be some second thoughts among both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino about the appropriateness of watering down our national security tools,” McConnell told the AP in an interview. “It’s an area we’re going to take a look at. Because look, national security and these threats of terrorism are now right at the top of the list of concerns of the American people.”

McConnell added that when Congress comes back into session next year, “we’re going to have more and more discussion about that whole issue.”

A November analysis by the Intercept found that of the 10 high-profile jihadist attacks carried out in Western counties between 2013 and 2015, some or all of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities as potential threats. The Paris gunmen, for example, had been on watch lists for years. Increased surveillance would not have prevented the attacks.

And an analysis by the New America Foundation last year looked at 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group and charged with an act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11 and found that the NSA’s bulk surveillance programs had almost no influence. Instead, the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, the analysis found. At most, the Patriot Act played a role in initiating just 1.8 percent of the cases.

“Our review of the government’s claims about the role that NSA ‘bulk’ surveillance of phone and email communications records has had in keeping the United States safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading,” the group said.

But that didn’t stop Republican presidential candidates from using the recent attacks both in the United States and Europe to call for increased surveillance at the CNN debate Tuesday night. Rubio, who has sided with McConnell, seized the opportunity to call for opening phone records to the government to “match them up” to “see who terrorists have been calling.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, however, has positioned himself on the other side of the conservative divide when it comes to bulk data collection. Cruz and Rubio sparred over domestic surveillance in one of the most heated exchanges of the debate.

Cruz supported the replacement law, the USA Freedom Act, which he says stopped the government from automatically collecting bulk data and also expanded the government’s ability to gather terrorists’ phone records. “The old program covered 20 to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists,” Cruz said in the debate. “The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that’s the case.”

Rubio disagreed. “Let me be very careful when answering this, because I don’t think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information, so let me just be very clear: There is nothing we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before,” he said.

Watch the exchange:

The Republican infighting over surveillance was also apparent in September, when Congress passed and President Obama signed a reform measure taking away the NSA’s ability to collect the phone records of millions of Americans. Rubio sided with defense hawks like McConnell at the time, saying the program was essential for national security. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who led the opposition to the NSA’s data collection and blasted the program during a 10-hour speech, was against both renewing the Patriot Act and passing the USA Freedom Act, the compromise measure.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress