With the help of the major media, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and his allies in the ACLU and other left-wing groups were on the verge last week of denying the United States a vital tool that could prevent another 9/11 terrorist attack. The decision of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to put off a vote until next Sunday has given the country a chance to understand the stakes and review the grossly distorted coverage of what the Patriot Act has meant to those charged with stopping terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
McConnell says that what President Obama and Senator Rand Paul are proposing as an alternative to the government’s collection of metadata, the so-called USA Freedom Act, is an “untried—and as of yet, non-existent—bulk-collection system” that “would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe.” The senator added, “At worst, it might not work at all due to—among many other problems—the lack of a requirement for telecommunications providers to retain the data to begin with.”
A Senate vote for the USA Freedom Act, which has passed the House, would be a major victory for NSA defector Edward Snowden, who still lives in Moscow under the protection of the Russian secret services. Speaking in Moscow to the British Guardian, Snowden expressed the hope that Congress will vote against the NSA’s existing powers and that further measures could be taken to cripple the agency. “My work is not finished,” said the leaker, who is charged with espionage and whose disclosures have been blamed for fueling the rise of the Islamic State and facilitating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Senator McConnell is getting pummeled for his position by news media on both the left and right. But the facts show that safeguards are built into the current program, and there has not been one documented case of abuse of the program, despite all the stories generated by Snowden’s allegations.
Former NSA executive Charlie Speight tells Accuracy in Media that the American people are being misled about what’s authorized under the Patriot Act because Senator Paul and his radical allies “continue the lie that NSA is collecting and reading everyone’s email and listening to everyone’s cell phone calls. Not only is such collection mathematically impossible, it’s unnecessary, inefficient, counterproductive and illegal.”
Numerous stories about the debate over re-authorizing the Patriot Act quoted the Justice Department Inspector General as saying that FBI agents “did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders.” This quote, taken out of context from the report, makes it sound as though the NSA has been obtaining information of little or no use to law enforcement authorities in stopping terrorist plots.
“FBI admits no major cases cracked with Patriot Act snooping powers” was the headline over a Washington Times story. “FBI says the Patriot Act’s spying powers haven’t cracked a single major case” was the headline over another story. The conservative site Truth Revolt ran a story headlined, “Massive Snooping Hasn’t Solved Any Cases: Report.” A libertarian outlet said, “IG Report Vindicates Rand Paul on Patriot Act: No Major Terror Plots Thwarted by Bill.”
But all of these stories convey a deliberately false impression.
These stories are based on what the ACLU said about the report, not what the report actually said in detail. An ACLU official by the name of Jameel Jaffer tweeted out, “FBI can’t identify even one instance in which surveillance under Section 215 led to a ‘major case development.’”
But that quote was included in a long paragraph in the May 2015 DOJ Inspector General report that makes it absolutely clear that the Patriot Act has not only been useful but essential.
The quote about no “major case developments” resulting from the use of the section is actually part of a longer statement that conveys a much different impression. It says:
“The agents we interviewed did not identify any major case developments that resulted from the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders, but told us the authority is valuable when it is the only means to obtain certain information. Agents told us that the material produced pursuant to Section 215 orders was used to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads, and corroborate other information. The agents’ descriptions of these uses of the authority were consistent with what we were told during our last two reviews.” (emphasis added).
In other words, Section 215 orders were indeed helpful. Those orders were used “to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads, and corroborate other information.”
Why didn’t the media emphasize this part of the report? It’s because the Edward Snowden narrative about the NSA has been accepted by a gullible media, eager to believe he is a whistleblower, not a traitor.
Here’s something else the media did NOT report from the DOJ report:
“…agents and attorneys told us that Section 215 authority continues to be a valuable investigative tool. Agents said they relied on Section 215 authority when companies would not voluntarily produce the material sought by the FBI and when the material was not available through other investigative authorities.”
The DOJ Inspector General refers to a report from the National Security Division of the Justice Department that included declarations from former NSA director Keith Alexander and former FBI director Robert Mueller asserting that the metadata obtained under the Patriot Act “addresses a critical, threshold issue for the Government’s efforts to detect and prevent terrorist acts affecting the national security” by identifying terrorists and their associates. Their report said the metadata provides information about the activities of terrorists and their associates that is not available from other sources such as NSA’s signal intelligence collection under Executive Order 12333. As such, Section 215 metadata collection “helps fill these foreign intelligence gaps” and allows the NSA to provide the FBI with information about contacts between U.S. telephone numbers and individuals believed to be associated with terrorist organizations. These leads or tips to the FBI ‘can act as an early warning of possible domestic terrorist activity.’”
The report adds, “According to Director Alexander’s declaration, the NSA tipped [redacted] telephone numbers to the FBI between May 2006 and May 2009. The report also stated that the FBI opened 27 full investigations between May 2006 and the end of 2008 ‘based, at least in part’ on Section 215 metadata tips. Director Mueller’s declaration described as examples four such cases.”
While linking terrorists to their contacts inside the United States is a sensitive matter that involves questions of legality and constitutionality, Speight, the former NSA executive, says that every NSA collection program is thoroughly vetted through a very stringent in-house General Counsel and Inspector General. The programs also go through equally stringent review by the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, judges on the FISA Court, House and Senate oversight committees and the Director of National Intelligence. While a court did rule that some of the NSA programs conducted under the Patriot Act were technically illegal, others have a different opinion, making the ruling more of a difference of legal opinion at this point rather than a declaration of law, he notes.
Although the NSA’s assistance to the FBI has been subject to erroneous coverage by the media, Speight points out that the NSA’s primary mission is combat support for the U.S. Armed Forces based abroad. He suggests that these successes have not gotten significant media attention because of the nature of the operations, noting, “How often have terrorist groups in foreign countries—the real target of the NSA—been taken down? How often has it identified threats, pinpointed financing and/or accomplices? How many times has it exposed the complicity of foreign governments? How many IEDs were shut down (they are usually triggered by cell phones) or how many bomb makers were targeted and killed or apprehended? By doing this, how has the NSA helped prevent embryonic terrorist attack plans?”
Taking the side of the NSA is former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, whose new group, the Foundation for American Security & Freedom, argues that without the NSA “we are vulnerable and blind,” and that “It’s time to reject scare-mongering political attacks against the NSA.” Bolton’s group has launched radio ads asserting that Section 215 of the Patriot Act “provides a critical element in the war on terror.”