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“Switch to Mitch” Better Than “Stand with Rand”

June 1, 2015

A new report on the damage done by Edward Snowden’s illegal leaks of classified information says terrorists now “better understand the scope and scale of Western intelligence capacity” and have altered the way they communicate about their plans to attack the United States and its allies. “By revealing information concerning intelligence-gathering techniques, Snowden has polluted ongoing operations” to catch terrorists, states the new report from the Henry Jackson Society.

At a time such as this, diminishing or dismantling the powers of the NSA seems like a suicidal course of action for the United States. Yet, acting at the instigation of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the Senate is close to voting for major changes to the NSA in the form of a so-called USA Freedom Act, which has already passed the House but which could risk a loss of critical intelligence information, thereby leading to future terrorist attacks. A Senate vote comes next Sunday, just hours before a vital NSA programauthorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act is scheduled to lapse.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who once endorsed Paul’s presidential run, seems to be having second thoughts as he scrambles to maintain the existing power of the NSA to obtain access to a databank of U.S. telephone numbers, known as metadata, which investigators could search for links to foreign terrorist organizations plotting attacks on the American homeland. Such information is obtained by the NSA and then provided to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.

The Obama administration is backing Senate passage of the USA Freedom Act legislation that some experts describe as unworkable.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) says that the USA Freedom Act “undercuts the Intelligence Community’s capability to stop terrorist attacks here and abroad. Our intelligence personnel have responsibly and professionally used authorities granted them under Section 215 for years, and have helped keep Americans safe as a result….  Even the Administration has admitted that no intentional abuses of privacy and civil liberties have resulted from the use of the legal authorities provided by Section 215.”

Burr points out that the legislation “envisions an unknown technical solution based on uncertain access to data that may or may not exist.” He says the bill lacks “a mandatory data retention requirement for the telecommunications companies,” and therefore offers no real mechanism for investigators to obtain the information that could help thwart terrorist attacks.

“As terror groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaida grow in number, capability, and technical sophistication, now is not the time to turn to an untested, unproven proposal” such as the House-passed USA Freedom Act, he said. Burr supports McConnell’s proposed clean authorization of section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The “Stand with Rand” crowd points to a Breitbart “exclusive” article from Paul, who is opposing McConnell’s effort and insists that “FBI agents can’t point to any major terrorism cases they’ve cracked thanks to the key snooping powers [for the NSA] in the Patriot Act.” Paul insists that the agency’s powers must be scaled back through Senate adoption of the USA Freedom Act.

In fact, however, the Senator’s claim about the NSA providing no role in cracking major terrorism cases is flat-out wrong, as AIM has documented. Paul was referring to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that in fact confirmed the usefulness of NSA information in providing investigative leads and corroborating other information for the FBI. Cases are actually “cracked” by law enforcement authorities working with information provided by the NSA and other sources.

In another major miscue, the Kentucky senator claimed in his Breitbart column that “a recent Pew Research Poll shows that a majority of Americans want the Patriot Act changed.” But the link is to an article about a poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the senator’s left-wing allies in attempting to shut down the powers of the NSA. 

The biased poll from Global Strategy Group and G² Public Strategies gets large margins against NSA surveillance powers by framing the issue in terms of the “privacy” of Americans’ “personal information” versus “government spying.” In fact, the NSA does not collect any “personal information,” except in cases where telephone numbers of terrorist contacts in the U.S. are matched with foreign terrorist organizations. That information is used by the FBI to conduct investigations of terrorist groups on U.S. soil.

Meanwhile, Paul has denied that his filibuster against the Patriot Act was a money-raising tactic linked to the release of his new book, Taking a Stand, and his presidential campaign.

If a political issue is what he’s seeking, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor, is giving it to him. Christie, a possible GOP presidential candidate, told the “Fox & Friends” show that Paul and his Senate allies are taking the side of NSA defector Snowden, “a criminal” who is “hiding in Russia.” Christie noted the irony in Snowden “lecturing to us about the evils of authoritarian government while he lives under the protective umbrella of Vladimir Putin.”

As several news organizations have pointed out, Paul makes the erroneous claim in his new book that six Americans died in the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks. This basic error of fact (four died at Benghazi) is a serious lapse for a presidential candidate who is already facing questions over his expertise in national security matters.

But, as Christie suggests, the most serious questions facing the Senator concern his willingness to regard Snowden, now living in Moscow under the protection of the Russian secret services, as a legitimate whistleblower concerned about the privacy of the American people. 

The new study from the Henry Jackson Society, written by Robin Simcox, saysSnowden has had “contact” with the Russian security service, the FSB, “an obvious cause of concern” that has led the U.S. Government to fear that Russian and Chinese cyber warfare capabilities have increased as a result of getting access to Snowden’s stolen files.  

Simcox documents how the following has occurred as a result of the Snowden disclosures:
  • At least three al-Qaeda affiliates are known to have changed their communication method.
  • Online jihadist platforms released new encryption tools, and at a quicker pace.
  • A video released onto a jihadist platform outlined what they had learned from the Snowden disclosures, providing advice on how to avoid detection and listing software packages that protect against surveillance.
  • Foreign terror suspects realized that their communications potentially passed through the U.S. (even if the individuals themselves were not based there) and that Communication Service Providers (CSP) was allowing the NSA to access these communications. They subsequently stopped using these CSPs to send emails, or even stopped using electronic communications altogether.
As one example of “non-domestic surveillance” revealed by Snowden, this report cites another report that the NSA had received permission to spy on groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

This may explain why groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR),a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, have joined Senator Paul in opposing NSA surveillance powers. On Sunday’s “This Week” program, Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) said he would “Stand with Rand” against the Patriot Act. “I’ve been proud to stand with him” on this and other issues, he said.

The Senate faces a choice this Sunday: “Switch to Mitch” or “Stand with Rand” and risk catastrophe. 

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