U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on Wednesday introduced the Liberty Through Strength Act II, a bill he says will strengthen United States intelligence efforts, but which a prominent conservative group calls “Big Brother on steroids.”
The bill would require the National Security Agency to maintain so-called “metadata” information from phone records collected from the previous five years. Metadata includes basic information about phone numbers and call times but does not include content. The USA FREEDOM Act passed earlier this year moved control of phone records to private telecom companies as of Dec. 1. The Liberty Through Strength Act II does not change that provision of the USA FREEDOM Act, but it would prevent the Obama administration from deleting the information.
“On Sunday our constitutional, legal, and proven NSA collection architecture shifted to an untested, less effective system in the dead of the night. … Worse, President Obama has decided that he will press delete on the metadata records we currently have, making it impossible to identify terrorist connections among these data that would reveal ISIS and Al Qaeda sleeper cells,” Cotton said in a statement.
The bill also would make permanent Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the NSA to collect not only phone metadata but also the contents of calls and emails that have a foreign connection and may or may not involve an American. That provision is set to expire, but Cotton’s bill would make it permanent.
Cotton’s bill has drawn a rebuke from FreedomWorks, a prominent group that helped create the tea party. In a press release by FreedomWorks’ office, CEO Adam Brandon said, “Senator Cotton’s bill is Big Brother on steroids. It seems like Senator Cotton and others who are willing to sacrifice our liberties on the altar of security are treating Orwell’s ‘1984’ as a how-to-guide instead of a warning.”
Jason Pye, FreedomWorks’ director of communications, said Wednesday (Dec. 2) in an interview that the metadata Cotton’s bill seeks to keep was obtained through a general warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
“We’re talking about the innocent Americans, people who have done nothing wrong, and just the government’s keeping their records just because Senator Cotton wants them to keep their records,” he said.
Pye said the NSA’s bulk collection has done nothing to keep Americans safe.
“Apologists for the NSA and supporters of what we call the ‘all calls’ program cannot point to a single instance in which NSA bulk collection of metadata prevented or thwarted a terrorist attack,” he said. “They simply can’t, and when they have tried to do so, those specific examples have been debunked. The intelligence came from other places. It didn’t come from the NSA program.”
In a column published May 15 on FoxNews.com, Cotton along with Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., wrote that the bulk collection of data has made America safer and that it poses less a risk to privacy than a grocery store rewards program. They pointed to a 2009 case of Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado-based Al Qaeda operative planning to bomb the New York subway system. They said the program allowed the NSA to identify a phone number of a co-conspirator.
Cotton and Pompeo asserted that the program might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks had it been in place.
“One of the hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar, made seven calls to an Al Qaeda safe house in Yemen before the attack,” they wrote. “Though the NSA intercepted these calls using other overseas methods, they believed al-Mihdhar wasn’t in the U.S. because they couldn’t obtain the phone number from which he called. We know now that al Mihdhar was in San Diego, preparing for the attacks.”
Cotton’s bill also would make permanent two temporary provisions. One, the roving wiretap provision, allows law enforcement to obtain a wiretap warrant for a person rather than a phone number, which easily can be discarded. The other, the so-called “lone wolf” provision, allows monitoring of potential terrorists not connected to a foreign power.