NSA phone data collection program ends, forcing debate over terror concerns

The National Security Agency’s sweeping authority to collect phone-record data expired Sunday, despite evidence that such programs helped European officials track down the perpetrators of the recent Paris suicide bombing attacks and prevented other attacks.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that investigators in France and Belgium found a cellphone number, then were able to see other numbers to which it had contacted, thwarting another attack and leading to at least a dozen arrests.

“I'm not sure that we know the full extent of what we've learned to this point, but any time you can take electronics and use those selectors, it's beneficial to the world's intelligence community,” the Republican lawmaker said. “And the United States made a real mistake when they eliminated this program.”

The Paris attacks two weeks ago killed 130 people, with the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, claiming responsibility.

The NSA had the authority through the post-9/11 Patriot Act. But revelations in 2013 by NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of the program resulted in public outcry and calls for Washington to rein in the program.

As a result, the GOP-controlled Congress voted in June to replace a section of the act with the USA Freedom Act, which limits the NSA’s authorization to bulk-collect smartphone, online and other electronic metadata.

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

Legislation backed by Burr and other Senate Republicans, including Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, to revive the program has been given little chance of passage.

However, Burr remained optimistic Sunday.

“It's amazing what happens when people are reminded what terrorists can do,” he said. “The American people recognize that the indiscriminate, brutal acts that (the Islamic State) carried out could happen in any community across this country and throughout the world. And I think as Americans, we believe we should do everything we can to eliminate that. … I want to make sure that the tools that law enforcement have are as robust as they possibly can be.”

The issue also has become part of the 2016 GOP primary debate.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is siding with top Republican senators in trying unsuccessfully to extend the existing program, saying that national security required it.

And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has allied himself with Democrats and the few other Republicans who said the program amounted to intrusive government overreach with no security benefit and voted to remake it.

With polls showing the public is growing more concerned with security after the Paris attacks, Rubio is needling Cruz, who is responding just as adamantly, as the two, rising in the presidential polls, escalate their direct confrontations.

"This is not a personal attack. It's a policy difference," Rubio said recently in an interview in Des Moines, Iowa.

He said Cruz had joined with Senate liberals and the ACLU "to undermine the intelligence programs of this country."

Cruz, in an interview, disputed Rubio's criticism.

"I disagree with some Washington Republicans who think we should disregard and discard the constitutional protections of American citizens," he said. "We can keep this nation safe without acquiescing to Big Brother having information about every aspect of our lives."

Cotton has introduced a bill to delay the start date for the new phone records program until 2017 or until the president can certify that the new NSA collection system is as effective as the current one.

Rubio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are among the co-sponsors of Cotton's bill. Yet with Congress on recess, it won't get floor time ahead of the deadline, and Congress has few legislative days left this year. Aides say Cotton will keep focused on the issue next year.

Some lawmakers and advocates who strongly opposed the expiring Patriot Act provisions as an unwarranted government intrusion now accuse senators on Rubio's side of trying to capitalize on the Paris tragedy to reopen the debate.

"Within six weeks of 9/11 they passed the Patriot Act," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "And it's only natural they would try to do the same thing this time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.