Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz clashed over their opposing votes on a key surveillance bill during Tuesday night’s GOP debate, with each senator trying to establish himself as the strongest on national security.
Rubio accused Cruz of hampering intelligence agencies by supporting the USA Freedom Act, which ended the National Security Agency’s vast collection of millions of U.S. phone records. That information could have been critical in investigating the shooting in San Bernardino, California, Rubio argued. “We are now at a time where we need more tools, not less tools,” the Florida Republican said. “And that tool we lost, the metadata program, was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.”
Cruz shot back that Rubio “knows what he’s saying isn’t true.” The old NSA dragnet, Cruz argued, covered only 20-30 percent of call records, whereas the Freedom Act will actually allow the agency to collect “nearly 100 percent” of records. Rubio stayed firm, claiming that “there is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before.”
So who is right? Did the Freedom Act actually give the NSA access to more records, as Cruz is claiming?
Yes, according to top intelligence officials. “The overall volume of call detail records subject to query pursuant to court order is greater under USA FREEDOM Act,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in a fact sheet on its implementation of the law last month.
Under the old law, the Patriot Act, the NSA claimed it had the right to collect records on every U.S. phone call. But due to technical obstacles, the agency reportedly struggled to integrate cell-phone records into its database. With people increasingly relying on cell phones instead of landlines, the technical problems had caused a major gap in the NSA’s database.
Under the Freedom Act, the NSA was required to give up control of the database. Instead, the phone companies keep the records themselves, and the NSA can get court approval to search for particular records. But critically, the law includes a provision that requires phone companies to provide “technical assistance” to help the NSA access the data in a readable format. That provision ensures the NSA can access millions of cell-phone records that had previously been beyond its reach.
So while the NSA now has fewer records in its direct possession, the universe of phone-call logs it can access is actually larger.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to put himself above the fray by saying the debate over surveillance powers shows why the public hates the Senate—“endless debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”
What We're Following See More »
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions is encouraging all U.S. attorneys to pursue the death penalty in certain drug cases. 'I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes in our nation,'" Sessions wrote in a Tuesday DOJ memo. "We cannot continue with business as usual." President Trump first proposed the step in New Hampshire speech on Monday. "If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we're wasting our time," he said. "That toughness includes the death penalty."
The Senate is expected to give final approval Wednesday to a bill limiting federal immunity for internet platforms involved in sex trafficking. "The immunity law was adopted in the 1990s as a way to nurture the internet, which was then at a fledgling stage. Trafficking lawsuits against online businesses—notably Backpage.com, a classified-ad site—have usually been tossed out of court because of the immunity law." Opponents of the legislation argue it could be used to squelch free speech by making companies liable for user-generated content.