The push to reform the National Security Agency isn’t getting any easier.
After a reform bill was narrowly blocked on the Senate floor late last year, civil libertarians hoped that an upcoming deadline to reauthorize some of the spy agency’s controversial powers would give them another opportunity to force changes.
“I hope the effect of that is that people realize ... the pendulum has swung way too far after [leaker Edward Snowden],” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters on Thursday.
“Hopefully people realize that the NSA plays a very, very important role in keeping Americans safe, and my guess there will be less of a desire to hamstring them unnecessarily,” he added.
In the next five months, Congress needs to reauthorize a key portion of the Patriot Act which authorizes the NSA to collect virtually all Americans’ phone records without warrants.
The bulk collection of phone metadata — including the incoming and outgoing numbers that people dial and when the calls were made, but not people’s actual conversations — has been one of the most controversial programs unveiled by Snowden more than a year and a half ago. So far, Congress has yet to touch it.
The closest lawmakers came was November, when a long-negotiated bill to end the bulk metadata collection fell just two votes short of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate.
After the failure of that vote, reformers pledged to press forward this year, even though the outlook seemed bleaker with a new GOP-majority. While four Republicans voted in favor of last year’s reform bill and one Democrat voted against it, the vote was largely along party lines.
“We still are interested in tying to end the bulk collection of data,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters last week. Paul, a noted libertarian, voted against the bill last year, on the grounds that it did not go far enough to rein in the NSA.
The recent terror attacks have not moved him from his position, he said.
“I’m in favor of having an NSA. I’m in favor of having an agency that helps to protect us by looking at signals and information, trying to put that together,” he said.
However, he added, “I think the American people are not in favor of having all their phone data collected without a warrant.”
The agency’s critics hoped that the June 1 sunset date for key Patriot Act provisions would force action. Civil libertarians have pledged not to reauthorize the law without substantive changes, leaving dangling the possibility that the spying powers would lapse completely. Intelligence agency officials have said that that would be disastrous for national security.
Yet the more time that passes since Snowden’s leaks, the more the public's anger over the spy agency's operations has dimmed.
Incidents like the Paris attacks make any attempt to rein in the agency a harder political sell.
“That metadata doesn’t look all that scary this morning,” former NSA head Michael Hayden said on MSNBC after Wednesday's shooting, the worst act of terror France had seen in generations.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if French services picked up cellphones associated with the attack and asked Americans: ‘Where have you seen these phones active globally?’”
The Paris attacks are only the latest foreign events to interject itself in the congressional debate over the NSA in recent weeks.
Shocking videos of beheadings carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jolted the national consciousness last September, and sparked similar concerns about handicapping U.S. spies. News about ISIS hurt the effort to reform the NSA last autumn, lobbyists working on the issue said at the time.
Agency skeptics insist those cases — along with an October attack on Canada's Parliament and a hostage situation in Sydney that led in three deaths in December — should not prevent NSA reform.
“The terrible reality is we’re seeing a proliferation of these one-off attacks in Canada, Australia, Paris,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffA guide to the committees: House New national security adviser pick marks big change on Russia Trump’s feud with the press in the spotlight MORE (Calif.), the new top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “There are always going to be opportunities to make the argument that the conditions in the world just don’t allow us to reform anything. I just don’t think that holds water.”
“I’m sure many will make the argument Director Hayden is making,” he added, “but I don’t think it is a valid argument."
Still, the new attacks have given defenders of the agency more reason not to fiddle with the NSA, months before the new deadline.
“It reminds us of our need to have at our disposal multiple and effective intelligence tools that allow us to gather information that could prevent an attack,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill last week.
“It’s a reminder that even as I’m speaking to you, there are capable individuals around the world, and potentially even here within the United States who are plotting to carry out attacks to kill innocent Americans,” he added.
“We have to have the tools at our disposal, to the extent possible, to identify these people and prevent those attacks from happening.”