Weakening national security?
Major new restrictions on the National Security Agency will go into effect on Sunday, amid a rekindled debate about the spy agency’s powers.
When the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, the NSA will halt its sweeping collection of Americans’ phone records, in a major victory for civil libertarians who have pushed for the reforms since the program was first revealed by Edward Snowden more than two years ago.
The reform has new meaning now, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.
National security hawks insist that ending the program will make America less safe by depriving intelligence agents of the ability of connect the dots between suspected terrorists precisely when fears about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are peaking.
The divide is coming into clear focus on the campaign trail, and promises to be a point of contention so long as public fears about terrorism remain high.
“I believe in the Constitution. I’ve spent my whole life fighting to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and the federal government has no right to be seizing, collecting and holding the phone metadata of hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at a tele-forum hosted by the Washington Examiner this month.
Cruz, whose presidential campaign has risen to the upper ranks in the all-important first caucus state of Iowa, was an early supporter of the bill to end the NSA’s phone records program, called the USA Freedom Act, which passed in June.
The program has collected metadata about people’s phone calls, including the numbers involved in the call, when it took place and how long it lasted — but not the content of their conversations. Privacy advocates have said that that information alone can nonetheless be revealing, noting that a call to an abortion provider, a bankruptcy lawyer or a therapy group can be nearly as telling as the details of what was discussed.
Under the new system, the NSA will have to get a narrow set of records from private phone companies after getting court approval that it has a reasonable suspicion the target is connected to terrorism.
“I am very proud of that legislation,” Cruz said. “It gives us the tools to stop bad guys while protecting our civil liberties at the same tine.”
Yet the stance is proving to be a vulnerability amid rising concerns about terrorism following the Paris attacks, which are believed to have been coordinated by ISIS. Critics say the extra steps required will be too cumbersome for the NSA during a moment of crisis.
This week, a conservative group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers unveiled a 30-second TV ad that will run in Iowa claiming Cruz “voted to weaken national security” and “joined Obama” by supporting the reform bill.