Paris attacks re-ignite debate over NSA tactics, metadata program

Two dead, seven arrested in raid in the French suburb of St. Denis


The deadly Paris attacks have re-ignited calls in Washington for the U.S. intelligence community to have more freedom to track suspected terrorists, after a period in which surveillance tactics were curtailed amid a civil liberties outcry. 

Some officials now are seeking more autonomy in electronically tracking suspects, including so-called “backdoor” access to encrypted messages, and a revival of the National Security Agency’s controversial "metadata" collection program. 

"We must provide the intelligence community with the tools they need to keep us safe," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted Wednesday, pushing to preserve the NSA's surveillance toolbox in the short-term. 

On the encryption front, the Obama administration last month officially abandoned efforts to get Silicon Valley to give U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to decode encrypted messages on smart phones and other digital devices. However, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has led the renewed calls in the aftermath of the Friday terror attacks in Paris in which nearly 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

“Only good intel is going to keep people safe,” Feinstein, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Tuesday after a classified briefing on the attacks, for which the Islamic State terror group has claimed responsibility.

She also argued that even getting a court order to access encrypted information won’t help intelligence experts decode such messages or so-called “dark sites” -- a point she has made repeatedly since the Paris attacks.

“If you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children … take down an airliner … that’s a big problem. So we need high-tech’s help in securing the Internet,” she told MSNBC on Monday.

There have been news reports that the suspects in the Paris attacks communicated through encryption, even using Sony’s PlayStation 4. However, French officials have yet to confirm such reports.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are leading the effort on Capitol Hill to extend the NSA’s program that collects phone metadata on suspected terrorists and others.

Sen. Cotton is introducing the Liberty Through Strength Act, which would extend the program beyond its Nov. 30 termination date until President Obama can certify that the replacement program is equally effective.

The GOP-controlled Congress voted in June to replace a section of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which allows for such bulk data collection. Members replaced it with the USA Freedom Act, which limits the NSA’s authority to collect the metadata.

Intelligence officers would instead have to go directly to telecommunications companies to get the data.

The change was largely the result of NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 exposing the program and the public outcry that followed about privacy concerns and government spying.  

"The terrorist attacks in Paris last week are a terrible reminder of the threats we face every day,” Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, said Tuesday. “We should allow the intelligence community to do its job. Passing the … act will empower the NSA to uncover threats against the United States and our allies.”

His efforts followed CIA Director John Brennan saying Monday in Washington that the attacks should make the United States reconsider whether “inadvertent or intentional” gaps have created significant challenges for the intelligence and homeland security communities. 

He also suggested that “unauthorized disclosures” by Snowden and others have resulted in “a lot of hand wringing” over government’s role in trying to detect terrorists and that some policy and legal actions have made such international efforts “much more challenging.”

On Wednesday, he spoke directly to the encryption issue, saying the country needs to “evolve” and “adapt” as technology develops.

The administration publicly signaled in October that it would drop its official effort to access encrypted information, now made possible with basic apps, when FBI Director James Comey told the Senate: “The administration has decided not to seek a legislative remedy now.”

Administration officials purportedly stopped, to the disappointment of the intelligence and law enforcement communities, for fear that rival countries like China or North Korea would also be able to decode messages.

However, Comey also suggested the administration would pursue the matter more privately, saying, “It makes sense to continue the conversations with industry.”

Republican presidential candidates also have taken up the metadata issue.

Candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday that if elected he would press Congress to reverse the USA Freedom Act.

And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has used the attacks to suggest to Americans that fellow GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul weakened U.S. intelligence by voting to end the NSA metadata program.