McConnell, GOP defend NSA
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders set for clash with Trump’s budget pick Cabinet picks boost 2018 Dems Overnight Finance: Trump takes US out of Pacific trade deal | WH says Trump has left his businesses | Lobbyists expect boom times MORE (Ky.) and other top Republicans on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s surveillance program as vital to protecting national security.

McConnell and other Republicans also starkly criticized legislation that would effectively end the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program. 

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“It will neither keep us safe nor protect our privacy,” the Kentucky Republican said of the USA Freedom Act. 

Congress faces a June 1 deadline to renew the Patriot Act, which authorizes the NSA bulk data program.

McConnell has pushed for a flat extension of the program, known as Section 215, but there are Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who want to approve legislation that would curtail it.

Hours before McConnell’s remarks, a federal court ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal. The federal court ruling, a major victory for the NSA’s opponents, struck like a lightning bolt into the congressional debate over whether to extend the Patriot Act.

McConnell said that the USA Freedom Act, which would change the NSA program, would damage national security by allowing “untrained corporate employees” to collect phone data.

The bill would rein in the NSA by ending its current collection practices. To obtain data, the NSA would have to ask private companies for a narrow set of phone records that are involved in a particular case. The NSA would no longer hold the records itself. 

McConnell criticized this as placing “a wall” between the NSA and the data. 

Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrWant to streamline government? Start with the Pentagon. Senators introduce dueling miners bills Trump education pick to face Warren, Sanders MORE (R-N.C.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that a discount card for a grocery store could be a greater threat to privacy than the NSA’s program. 

“The NSA doesn't sell data, your grocery story does,” he said. “But I don't hear anyone complaining about the grocery store's discount card, because you get a discount.”

GOP Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Memo: Searching for firm footing as Trump Era begins Overnight Energy: Senate panel clears Tillerson for State Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson MORE (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsDemocrats expected to delay Sessions vote Overnight Regulation: Trump aims to cut regs by 75 percent | Issues federal hiring freeze AT&T beefs up lobbying after merger proposal MORE (Ala.) also joined the discussion, suggesting that the NSA program is required to help combat and prevent a terrorist attack within the United States.

Sessions suggested that the current NSA program could help identify a potential terrorist attack against the U.S. Capitol. 

“You might identify the cell inside the United States that's on the verge of having another 9/11, to hijack another airplane, blow up the Capitol,” he said. “I mean, this is real life.” 

Burr warned that the reform bill would put the country back where it was before 9/11.

McConnell suggested that there's an increased need for the NSA’s surveillance as the United States fights the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which uses a heavy social media presence to recruit supporters to carry out attacks against and within the United States. 

“If our intelligence community cannot connect the dots of the information, we cannot stop this determined enemy from launching attacks,” he said. 

Cotton added that the NSA programs help “close the gap that existed between foreign intelligence gathering and stopping attacks at home before 9/11. This is the gap that contributed in part to our failure to stop the 9/11 attack.”

Rubio’s participation alongside McConnell in the debate was interesting given the 2016 GOP races for the White House. Rubio is a candidate, as is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes the NSA surveillance programs. McConnell is backing Paul’s presidential bid.

Rubio suggested that if there is another terrorist attack within the United States and the current law isn't reauthorized, lawmakers will face questions about whether or not they could have helped prevent the attack.  

“One day, I hope that I'm wrong, but one day there will be an attack that's successful,” he said. “The first question out of everyone's mouth is going to be, why didn't we know about it? And the answer better not be because this Congress failed to reauthorize a program that might have helped us know about it.”