NSA ‘confident’ in new system at center of Rubio-Cruz fight

NSA ‘confident’ in new system at center of Rubio-Cruz fight
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The National Security Agency said on Thursday it was “confident” in its powers under a new phone records collection scheme, a claim that backs up assertions from Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz no longer wearing mask in Capitol The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Democrats brace for new 'defund the police' attacks MORE (R-Texas).

In a post on the influential legal blog Lawfare, NSA general counsel Glenn Gerstell addressed the operations of the spy agency’s new program, which began in November following a tough congressional fight last summer.    


“NSA will in due course, as it gains experience with the new process, report to Congress about the efficiency of the new arrangement,” Gerstell wrote. 

“NSA is confident, however, that it can operate the new scheme in compliance with the law, while still obtaining information necessary to help protect our country, and it believes that the country’s telephone companies will similarly fulfill their roles under the new statute,” he added.

The comment comes as a subtle rebuke to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference Senators reintroduce bill to block NATO withdrawal New US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations MORE (R-Fla.), who has railed against new limits on the NSA as part of his presidential campaign.

Amid new fears about global terrorism following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Rubio has trumpeted his efforts to block NSA reform last summer. He has gone on the attack against Cruz, a top rival in the presidential race, who was a vocal supporter of new rules for the spy agency.

Until November, the NSA was allowed to indiscriminately collect phone records about millions of Americans, in a program that was detailed by government leaker Edward Snowden. The records included information about the numbers involved in a phone call, when it occurred and how long it lasted, but not the content of the conversation.

In November, the NSA ceased collecting those millions of records. Instead, it now gets a court order to ask private phone companies to hand over records about possible suspects.

The change was a blessing to many privacy advocates, who have accused the NSA of violating Americans’ privacy by indiscriminately collecting people’s records. Top intelligence and Justice Department officials had also endorsed the changes.

But to national security hawks like Rubio, the reform could make America less safe.  

“The terrorist that attacked us in San Bernardino was an American citizen,” Rubio said during a presidential debate in December. “I bet you we wish we would’ve had access to five years of his records.” 

Gerstell’s blog post on Thursday appeared to refute those allegations.

In addition to addressing privacy concerns, the NSA’s new program also allows the government to collect more phone records; the old system was incapable of collecting data about many cellphone calls. As such, the reforms that went into effect in November should only give U.S. intelligence officials more tools at their disposal, Cruz has asserted.

“What [Rubio] knows is that the old program covered 20 to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists,” the Texas senator said during that December debate. “The new program covers nearly 100 percent.”

The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee considered investigating whether Cruz gave up classified information by making that claim, even though the fact had been previously reported. The panel ultimately decided not to press forward with an investigation.

On Thursday, the NSA’s top lawyer seemed to side with Cruz on that point as well.

“Largely overlooked in the debate that has ensued in the wake of recent attacks is the fact that under the new arrangement, our national security professionals will have access to a greater volume of call records subject to query in a way that is consistent with our regard for civil liberties,” Gerstell wrote.