“The system was blinking red … it could not get any worse.” That’s how then-CIA Director George Tenet described the threats against the United States during the summer of 2001. But it did get worse: Al Qaeda struck on 9/11, killing almost 3,000 Americans. Today, the terrorist threats are more dangerous than ever, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently testified to Congress.
Across Africa and the Middle East, Al Qaeda affiliates have metastasized following America’s retreat. Iran continues its unrelenting support for terrorism. And of course there’s the Islamic State. Far from “the JV team” as President Obama called them, the Islamic State is rampaging across Iraq and Syria, while inspiring attacks and plots in the U.S. and Western Europe.
These groups are now larger and more sophisticated—for example, developing new non-metallic bombs to evade detection, recruiting westerners to conduct homegrown attacks, and attracting adherents through social media. Just last week, the Islamic State inspired the attack in Garland, Texas, and our military bases had to go on heightened alert.
President Obama’s own actions demonstrate the need for this program. He could’ve easily ended the program after Edward Snowden’s sensational disclosures—but he didn’t and hasn’t, because he knows it protects Americans.
After 9/11, America finally went on offense against terrorists, and not just with our military. Congress acted to close the intelligence gaps that had allowed Al Qaeda to strike us. With large bipartisan majorities, the Congress provided the executive branch and the judiciary with critical new tools to keep America safe, while also protecting civil liberties.
Unless Congress acts this month, three of these critical tools will expire, reopening pre-9/11 intelligence gaps.
First, the “lone wolf” provision helps officials find and stop homegrown attackers who may not be directly linked yet to an overseas terrorist group.
Second, the roving-wiretap provision allows for warrants against a targeted person, not just a specific device. Law-enforcement officials have had this power in criminal cases for decades, and it makes no sense to deprive them of it in national-security cases.
Finally, section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the collection of business records needed to thwart terrorist attacks. While this section is used most often by the FBI in investigations of specific threats, it’s more widely known after Edward Snowden’s treasonous disclosures as the authority for the NSA’s telephone metadata program.
As members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, we have carefully studied this program and are convinced that it’s an integral tool in our fight against terrorism. Congress should
Contrary to irresponsible rumors, the program is lawful, carefully monitored, and protects personal privacy. The program does not conduct mass surveillance of American citizens—or any surveillance at all.
The NSA isn’t “listening to your calls” and it’s not even getting personally identifiable information. Rather, it simply collects metadata: the time and duration of a call and the phone numbers involved.
The Supreme Court has long held there’s no a reasonable expectation of privacy in this information; after all, the phone company already has it. Further, 15 federal judges have approved the program on 40 different occasions. And the program was known or knowable to every member of Congress in 2011 when section 215 was last reauthorized.
Also, the NSA follows rigorous procedures to query the data. The agency must go through a 6-step process that includes multiple layers of review from attorneys and independent federal judges. Even then, only a couple dozen people can access the data.
We have personally met these upstanding men and women—many from a military background—and can attest their professionalism. Plus, they all undergo regular background checks, drug tests, and polygraphs.
Moreover, all queries of the data are automatically recorded and regularly audited by the Inspector General, Department of Justice, and congressional Intelligence Committees. These extensive safeguards are why the program has a sterling record with no verified incidents of intentional abuse—not a single one.
Given its limited scope and these safeguards, this program poses a much lower risk to personal privacy than does, say, a typical grocery-store rewards program. But you don’t have to take our word for it. President Obama’s own actions demonstrate the need for this program. He could’ve easily ended the program after Snowden’s sensational disclosures—but he didn’t and hasn’t, because he knows it protects Americans.
One example is the 2009 case of Najibullah Zazi—a Colorado-based Al Qaeda operative plotting to bomb the New York subway system. This program allowed the NSA to identify a previously unknown phone number for a co-conspirator. The plot so advanced that they had already procured the bomb-making materials needed to carry out the attack at the time of their arrest.
Similarly, many intelligence experts have testified that, had this program existed in 2001, it may have prevented the 9/11 attacks. One of the hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar, made seven calls to an Al Qaeda safe house in Yemen before the attack. 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.
These examples—and others we can’t share—demonstrate that this program is a national security imperative, as are the lone wolf and roving-wiretap authorities. Congress must act to reauthorize all three provisions. The alternative is too dangerous.
Tom Cotton represents Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. Mike Pompeo represents Kansas's 4th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.