Security officials, surveillance hawks get busy with fearmongering ahead of Patriot Act deadline
by Sam Rolley
The June 1 deadline for Congress to renew portions of the Patriot Act that authorize the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs is drawing near. For top government officials and many establishment Republicans, that means it’s time to double down on homeland security fearmongering.
Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made a Sunday appearance on ABC’s “This Week” to warn Americans that the Internet has given ISIS terror cells hidden throughout the nation the ability to “strike at any moment.”
“We want the public to be vigilant and aware but we encourage people to go to public events [and] sporting events,” Johnson said. “But we’re very definitely in a new environment because of[ ISIS’s] effective use of social media [and] the Internet, which has the ability to reach into the homeland and possibly inspire others.”
The DHS official said that law enforcement at all levels are struggling to monitor possible terror threats because of new communications technology.
“Because of the use of the Internet we could have little or no notice in advance of an independent actor attempting to strike,” Johnson said.
The government official said that DHS has been forced to “ramp up” communication with local law enforcement in order to deal with the possibility of global terror groups influencing people in the U.S.
Johnson’s remarks came after FBI Director James Comey offered a dramatic assessment if the ISIS terror threat in the U.S. last week, estimating “hundreds, maybe thousands” of people in the country could act on behalf of the terror group.
“It’s like the devil sitting on their shoulders, saying ‘kill, kill, kill,'” Comey reportedly told the press.
Based on Comey’s remarks, the only thing that can keep America safe is allowing surveillance agencies to collect communications data without restriction.
“The haystack is the entire country,” Comey said, according to USA Today. “We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are unavailable to us. … This is the ‘going dark’ problem in living color.”
Referring to a Phoenix-area ISIS sympathizer recently killed during an attack on a Texas cartoon contest accused of insulting Islam, Johnson added, “There are Elton Simpsons out there that I have not found and I cannot see.”
In order to find those potential terrorists, Comey told reporters that law enforcement officials need a backdoor to encrypted communication methods.
Over on Capitol Hill, the usual suspect Republicans are also working to drum up support for continued — and possibly increased — government surveillance.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Section 215 of the Patriot Act is “an important tool to prevent the next terrorist attack” during a Sunday speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston.
Currently, a bill called the USA Freedom Act is expected to pass in the House and move along to the Senate. The legislation would extend the Patriot Act with modest reforms on the NSA’s ability to collect Americans’ communications data.
McConnell said the reforms will needlessly put the U.S. in danger.
“The nation is better off with an extension of the Patriot Act than not, but we’ll see where the votes go,” he said, according to Reuters.
The Kentucky lawmaker used a “needle in the haystack” metaphor similar to Comey’s in defending Section 215 last week on the Senate floor.
“Put differently, Section 215 helped us find the needle in a haystack, but under the USA Freedom Act, there may not be a haystack to look through at all,” he said.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Monday that doing away with the bulk collection would hamstring U.S. intelligence at a time “when the enemy is getting much more sophisticated.”
Military officials are also contributing to the effort to raise the profile of domestic terror concerns, as noted Friday by CNN:
Security conditions at U.S. military bases have been increased over growing concerns about terror threats, officials said Friday.
A U.S. official confirmed to CNN that U.S. military bases are now at “Force Protection Bravo,” which is defined by the Pentagon as an “increased and predictable threat of terrorism.” It is the third-highest threat level on a five-tier scale used by the Department of Defense.
U.S. military officials added Friday that the announcement, which comes in the aftermath of the shooting at a Texas cartoon contest featuring drawings of the Prophet Mohammed, was not the result of a specific threat but because the military had become concerned about several recent incidents.
Much of the screeching from surveillance officials and hawks follows a substantial victory for NSA critics in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week. The court ruled that there is currently nothing in the Patriot Act as a whole, or in Section 215 specifically, which authorizes the collection of communications metadata. That means that Congress would have to expand, rather than reauthorize, Section 215 for the programs to continue.