The push to rein in the authorities of the National Security Agency—covertly expanded by a secret court to permit indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ communications and financial records—has become a truly bipartisan affair. In a way, this is nothing new: Liberals who recall the abuses of the Hoover era have long teamed with conservatives skeptical of government power in efforts to check excessive surveillance. With a Senate vote looming to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act, however, a still stranger mix of opponents is seeking to block what has emerged as the primary vehicle for intelligence reform in the post-Snowden era.
First, and least surprising, there’s the “More Catholic than the Pope” contingent—boosters of the intelligence community who seem convinced that the bill will somehow put Americans at risk, despite the insistence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the proposed safeguards would not hinder intelligence operations. This stance is exemplified by a stunningly misleading Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and forrmer NSA head Michael Hayden. Since the terrorist Islamic State group, or ISIS, is currently in the headlines, naturally it is invoked to tar the bill as “a reform that only ISIS could love.” Never explained: Why, precisely, we should expect an authority to indiscriminately sweep up domestic telephone records to be a critical tool for monitoring a group that seems primarily concerned with consolidating its power overseas, not fielding operatives in the United States. After all, even when it comes to domestic investigations—where one might have expected the NSA’s mass database to show its value—two independent review groups with full access to classified records have concluded that the program had little or none. Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has described the reforms as “tying our hands behind our back”—but a hand is a useful appendage. On the public record, “tying our hair back” might a be more apt description—the bulk database has obscured the FBI’s by flooding the Bureau with dead-end “tips,” while any truly pertinent information it provided was invariably duplicative of records that agents had already obtained using traditional, targeted authorities.
Yet the USA FREEDOM framework actually preserves the core capabilities of this ineffective program: It creates a new mechanism for the government to do “connection chaining” by quickly and continuously obtaining, from multiple phone carriers, the records of suspected terror affiliates and their contacts. Mukasey and Hayden falsely decribe the new process as requiring a “warrant”—which it does not, on the consensus legal understanding that a “warrant” is a particularized authority based on the Fourth Amendment’s relatively high evidentiary standard of “probable cause.” They also, somewhat comically, describe it as requiring the government go “scurrying” to telecomunications providers to “comb through” records, presumably by consulting a card catalogue. Yet the point of the new framework, with a mandate that carriers provide “technical assistance” to NSA, is precisely to ensure that carriers can rapidly search their files to provide information about numbers once the secret FISA court has signed off (or, indeed, in advance of the court’s approval in an emergency). Nor, indeed, do Mukasey and Haden so much as mention “National Security Letters,” a separate tool that can be used to obtain certain types of communications records without any judicial involvement. Unfortunately, the USA FREEDOM Act does not implement the recommendation of the President’s Surveillance Review group that these, too, require court authorization. Nor, conspicuously, does their tendentious discussion of the various safeguards currently in place mention the numerous massive and systemic violations of the rules imposed by the FISA court—violations that easily passed undetected for years precisely because NSA itself maintained the database rather than making particularized requests to carriers through the FISA court.
In short, the bill doesn’t really affect the government’s capabilities, only the way they’re implemented. First, phone numbers to be searched will have to be specifically approved by the FISA Court—as Congress expected would be the case when it approved these authorities, and as has already been required since Februrary under a presidential directive. Second, NSA will quickly obtain particular records, corresponding to “specific selectors” like phone numbers or other account identifiers, by passing its search queries to the carriers who already maintain those rather than compiling its own massive database, overwhelmingly consisting of irrelevant data about innocent people. This ought to be a pure win: A privacy protective re-architecting that reduces the potential for abuse without meaningfully interfering with the government’s ability to obtain the information in which it has a legitimate interest. Which, of course, is why current intelligence officials have characterized the reforms as reasonable. Retired officials—the ones who implemented the bulk program and insisted its vast invasiveness was absolutely necessary—may be reluctant to admit they’ve been proven wrong, but their stubbornness does not amount to much of an argument.