Fear-mongers invoke the Islamic State to block NSA reform
Senate Republicans have successfully used the specter of the so-called Islamic State to block the USA Freedom Act, which would have curtailed government surveillance and allowed companies to be more honest with consumers about data requests, nixing any hope of reform this session.
The USA Freedom Act was a last-ditch effort to push surveillance reform through before Republicans, who are widely expected to side with intelligence agencies instead of with American citizens and private businesses, take control of Congress with the next session.
The bill needed 60 votes to advance. It received 58 in its favor from Democrats, Independents, and four Republicans. The 41 votes against it were overwhelmingly made by Republicans, with Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida being the only Democrat who voted alongside the grand ol' party.
Here's how the Wall Street Journal describes the Republican opposition to the bill's advance:
Critics of the legislation said it hadn’t received proper consideration within the Senate and voiced concern that it could leave the country vulnerable to more attacks, citing the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“Now is not the time to be considering legislation that takes away the exact tools we need to combat ISIL,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said. This isn't the first time the government has used the threat of terrorism to expand or support the intelligence community's surveillance programs -- or their illegal torture programs -- and it's not even the first time those claims have been overblown or just flat-out dishonest, either.
As the New America Foundation reported after numerous officials claimed that NSA programs were responsible for stopping dozens of terrorist attacks after the programs were made public:
Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group. Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens’ telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.On the other end of the spectrum is the unlikelihood of the extremist group known as the Islamic State attacking the United States or other Western countries in the near future. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much in August; Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson made a similar claim in September; and President Obama said in a speech made in September that intelligence agencies haven't identified a threat to the US.
All of which means that claims of an imminent attack on Western soil by the Islamic State or other extremist groups are overblown -- and even if they weren't, there's little the NSA can do to prevent those attacks now that it wouldn't be able to do if the USA Freedom Act was passed.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]