Head of CIA warns that US is at risk of lone wolf terror attack.
NSA powers to monitor all phone calls expired – as Isis ‘watch carefully’ for security gaps
- Legislation allowing mass collection of phone records expired Sunday
- Patriot Act also enabled wire taps and warrants issued without evidence
- Senate tried to pass reform bill but was frustrated by Rand Paul (R-KY)
- Paul claimed victory, but admitted replacement law is likely to be passed
- Head of CIA now warns terrorists are ‘watching developments carefully’ and says ordinary Americans at risk because of political grandstanding
The head of the CIA has warned that Americans are now at risk after the Senate was unable to extend laws giving authorities special powers to fight terrorists. Politicians in the upper house were unable to come to an agreement to extend key parts of the Patriot Act – that legalize controversial methods of surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) – which expired on Sunday. Attempts were frustrated by Presidential candidate Rand Paul, who has taken a firm stance against the extension of powers allowing the mass collection of phone records, wire taps and warrants without evidence.
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But the Head of the CIA John Brennan claims ordinary Americans, who expect the NSA to do their jobs, have been put at risk by ‘political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes’ that fueled the debate. Speaking on CBS show Face The Nation, he warned that the US – and Europe – is now in danger from technologically ‘sophisticated’ terrorists who are watching developments carefully and ‘looking for the seams to operate’ within.
He claimed that the authorities do not abuse the powers, extended in 2011 to help fight lone wolf terror suspects not connected to a specific group, and that without them, it’s difficult for the NSA to protect America. Mr Brennan said: ‘I think terrorist elements have watched very carefully what has happened here in the United States, whether or not it’s disclosures of classified information or whether it’s changes in the law and policies. They are looking for the seams to operate within.
‘And this is something that we can’t afford to do right now, because if you look at the horrific terrorist attacks and violence that is being perpetrated around the globe, we need to keep our country safe. And our oceans are not keeping us safe the way they did a century ago.’ The Patriot Act was passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Now that the provisions have expired, government agents will need to subpoena phone companies for the records. The White House previously justified collecting the records because of the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which expired on Sunday.
Two other provisions, added in 2011, also expired with it. The first is a ‘roving wiretap’ provision which allows government agencies to keep tracking suspects as they switch devices. The second is a ‘lone wolf’ clause which allows warrants to be granted without any evidence linking a suspect to a foreign power or terrorist group. Political struggles over the NSA and its data collection have become a national issue since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of government programs in 2013.
The senate’s efforts to pass a replacement bill were frustrated by Kentucky’s junior senator Rand Paul, who has spoken at length against the NSA’s activities, which he has excoriated as illegal and unconstitutional. Paul, a Republican who is running for president, came up against members of his own party, as well as the Obama administration. With his presidential campaign waning, he has been accused of irresponsible political opportunism by opponents, by fighting a bill on ideological grounds that may put ordinary people at risk.
He was criticized by the White House Sunday night, which called the Patriot Act expiration an ‘irresponsible lapse’. While Brennan didn’t mention Paul by name, he said on Face The Nation: ‘Unfortunately I think there is a little too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have really fuelled the debate on this issue. He added: ‘These are authorities that have been used by the government to make sure that we’re able to safeguard Americans. And the sad irony is that most Americans expect the government to protect them. And so although there’s a lot of debate that goes on, on the Congress and the Hill on this issue, I think, when you go out to Boise or Tampa or Louisville, Americans are expecting their law enforcement and homeland security and intelligence professionals to do their work. And these authorities are important.’
Paul argued ‘there must be another way’ but even he agrees that the lapse in these powers are likely to be temporary as politicians work on the USA Freedom Act, which is expected to pass within the next week. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called a rare Sunday session to try to pass the replacement law, but was unable to push it through in time. And although the replacement is set to pass this week, Paul said the expiration was ‘a victory no matter how you look at it’.
In a statement, he said: ‘It might be short lived, but I hope that it provides a road for a robust debate, which will strengthen our intelligence community, while also respecting our Constitution. He added: ‘The expiration of the NSA’s sweeping, all-encompassing and ineffectual powers will not relinquish functions necessary for protecting national security. The expiration will instead do what we should have done all along – rely on the Constitution for these powers.’ According to a top lawmaker, as of 8pm Sunday no NSA employee could access their enormous phone records database, which holds metadata on millions of phone conversations handed over by telecoms companies like Verizon and AT&T. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said on Sunday: ‘There is no way to get any type of agreement tonight — either an extension or passage of a bill. So at 8pm tonight, NSA employees can not query the database’.
In a statement issued Sunday night, Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest, urged action to pass the USA Freedom Act as quickly as possible. He said: ‘The Senate took an important – if late – step forward tonight. We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible. ‘On a matter as critical as our national security, individual Senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly. The American people deserve nothing less.’ Some lawmakers have said the lapse raises alarming questions about how US authorities can keep the homeland safe with a diminished security toolbox.
‘I think it’s very very unfortunate that we’re in this position,’ said Senator Mike Lee, a conservative Republican who supports the reform bill. ‘We’ve known this date was coming for four years. Four years. And I think it’s inexcusable that we adjourned’ for a week long break last week without resolving the issue. Lee, too, conceded that the reform bill would most likely pass in the coming week. With the clock ticking, CIA chief John Brennan warned Sunday that allowing vital surveillance programs to lapse could increase terror threats, and argued that the phone metadata dragnet has not abused civil liberties and only serves to safeguard citizens. ‘This is something that we can’t afford to do right now,’ Brennan said of allowing the counterterrorism provisions to expire.
‘Because if you look at the horrific terrorist attacks and violence being perpetrated around the globe, we need to keep our country safe, and our oceans are not keeping us safe the way they did century ago,’ he said on CBS talk show Face the Nation. Brennan added that online threats from groups like Isis would continue to grow over the next five to ten years. He said: ‘Isis has been very sophisticated and adept at using the Internet to propagate its message and reach out to individuals. We see what is happening as far as thousands upon thousands of individuals, including many thousands from the West, that have traveled into Syria and Iraq. And a number of these individuals are traveling back.
‘And what we see, they’re also using the Internet as a way to incite and encourage individuals to carry out acts of violence. ‘So as the director of FBI says, you know, this use of these websites and their Internet capabilities is something of great concern. So yes, I think ISIS is a threat not just in the Middle East and South Asia and African regions but also to Europe as well as to the United States.’
WHAT DID THE PATRIOT ACT DO?
The USA Patriot Act is an acronym for the Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, signed by George W Bush in 2001 after the 9/11 attack.
It allowed authorities to:
- Detain immigrants indefinitely
- Search homes and businesses without the owner’s consent or knowledge
- Search phone, email and financial records without a court order
- Access a wider range of business records, including library and financial records
Powers were expanded in 2011 by Barrack OBama’s administration, introducing additional powers:
- The ‘roving wiretap’ gives the government the authority to tap a suspect’s line as he hops from one device to another. It does so by enabling spies to apply for a warrant without identifying the target
- The ‘lone wolf’ provision allows spies to get a warrant to monitor someone electronically without having to prove that they are part of a wider known terrorist group
WHAT IS THE SENATE’S NEXT MOVE?
The Patriot Act is supposed to be replaced by the USA Freedom Act, an acronym for Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act. It is expected to pass next week and will:
- Rein in powers for the mass collection of data, requiring agencies instead to apply for information on a specific entity, such as a person, account or device
- Require intelligence agencies to be more transparent about what they collect, allowing technology companies to be more open about what they share
- EXTEND powers offered in the lone wold and roving wire tap provisions
It was first proposed in 2013 but is expected to pass this week