Lee USA Freedom

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Politics rarely brings out the best in people, and debating terrorism only adds more emotion to the mix.

That’s why it is so important for our political leaders to be as accurate and as thorough as possible when discussing our nation’s counterterrorism policies.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening.

...just as Obama can't identify a single mass shooting that his gun control proposals would have stopped, supporters of warrantless domestic spying can't point to a single attack the NSA's domestic program prevented.

For example, some of our colleagues claim that the recently passed USA Freedom Act “greatly curtailed the ability of our intelligence professionals to identify and track terrorist communications.”

However, when you ask these same colleagues to explain how exactly the USA Freedom Act supposedly “curtailed” our counterterror capabilities, they suddenly get very vague. This doesn’t help anyone.

Here is the truth.

Before the USA Freedom Act became law, the National Security Agency vacuumed up all the metadata—a business record of who called who and for how long—for almost every domestic landline phone call made in America. And they did all of this without a warrant.

For most of the program’s life, intelligence officials could then search the NSA’s massive database whenever they wanted. But for the last few years, any agency that wanted access to the NSA’s database had to get a court order from a special intelligence court to do so.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA is no longer allowed to vacuum up all that metadata.  And a federal court has ruled that such a practice violates the Fourth Amendment rights of all Americans.

Under the USA Freedom Act, U.S. intelligence agencies must now go to that same special intelligence court, get a court order for a specific target to be searched, and then present that order to U.S. phone companies. The phone companies are then obligated to help agencies locate all relevant metadata for the suspected target, including access to metadata the NSA did not have access to previously, like cell phone records.

Now it is true that phone companies don’t always keep their customers metadata as long as the NSA kept its own warrantless collection. FCC regulations require companies to keep that data for 18 months—most companies keep it for two years—while the NSA kept their landline phone data for five years.

So before USA Freedom, intelligence officials did have access to three additional years of metadata. But according to press reports, that metadata was mostly limited to domestic landline calls. Intelligence officials testified before Congress that that data was of limited value.

In fact, when the NSA was forced to stop its warrantless collection program, the federal government did not even ask for access to the old data despite the fact that nothing in the USA Freedom Act prevented the agency from getting it.

The proponents of the NSA’s warrantless domestic spying program also vastly oversell its effectiveness. The program was still in operation when terrorists struck Paris and had expired just four days before the San Bernardino attacks. If this program was so essential, why did it not stop these attacks?

Furthermore, just as Obama can't identify a single mass shooting that his gun control proposals would have stopped, supporters of warrantless domestic spying can't point to a single attack the NSA's domestic program prevented.

The USA Freedom Act is what the Patriot Act was supposed to be, and while it’s not perfect, it rectifies the administration’s heavy-handed application of our surveillance apparatus.

In efforts that appear purely political, some of my colleagues are using USA Freedom and the tragedy in Paris to bolster their campaigns and appear serious on matters of security.

These issues can never be fully above politics, but leaders should at least get their facts straight. And they should remember that our first priority should always be keeping all Americans safe.

Disingenuous claims about our laws governing privacy and security do nothing to ensure the safety of America’s citizens, but rather unnecessarily increase fears during a time of increased threats here in America and around the world.

Mr. Lee (R., Utah) is a U.S. Senator and Chairman of the conservative Senate Steering Committee.