The US Senate returns to a rare Sunday session hours before the Patriot Act is due to expire at midnight May 31. Federal law enforcement authorities warn that valuable surveillance tools for detecting terrorist acts, including collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk, would lapse, as well as the legal authority for preventive measures.
The Patriot Act grants the National Security Agency (NSA) comprehensive authority for surveillance of communications on US soil. This includes “roving wiretaps” for intercepting messages among terror suspects and surveillance of “lone wolf” individuals unaffiliated with known terrorism organizations. Their conversations are not recorded, but all their personal data, addresses, the locations of their calls and messages., are collected and preserved, and may be released by court order to any of America’s 30 security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.|
These powers would be affected by the expiry of the Patriot Act, as well as the FBI’s authority to obtain secret court orders to collect documents, such as hotel and travel records during terrorism investigations.
Data collection in bulk, though not foolproof, is an unsurpassed method for homing in on a terrorist with no previous criminal or security record, by the device of “roving wiretaps.”
Rendering this process selective or subject to gaps would seriously impair the capabilities of Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) to pick up in time on terrorist episodes in the making.
President Barack Obama Saturday, May 30, advocated its usefulness, and both FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned against giving up these essential tools for combating terrorism and crime.
But presidential hopeful Rand Paul (Rep. Kentucky) has taken the lead of the campaign against the Patriot Act, along with civil liberties groups. They maintain that existing laws provide ample authority for the government to obtain information about individuals planning attacks of terrorism, and unwarranted license to intrude on individual privacy is contrary to the US Freedom Act.
In recent weeks, as the debate went back and forth in American national discourse, two incidents were reminders to the free world that radical Islamist organizations were gathering momentum and watching out for a chance to strike.
On May 3, two gunmen, who fit the definition of “lone wolves,” opened fire at an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, northeast of Dallas. Texas. Police officers shot and killed both gunmen before they gained entry to the hall.
One did have a record and slipped through the net. But a complete database, including the two gunmen’s messages and phone calls, provided counter-terrorism authorities after the event with information about the source of their weapons, their trips to Syria and Iraq and their funding – tools for building a profile for future prevention.
In the second incident, a pair of US Air Force F-15 jets scrambled Monday, May 26, to escort Air France Airbus A-330 to land safely at JFK in New York. It was carrying hundreds of passengers and crew from Paris. An anonymous phone call had warned that a chemical bomb was on the flight.
In the three days leading up to this incident, police stations across the United States were swamped with false claims of bombs aboard airliners heading for America. The media reported two flights destined for Newark, New Jersey: Delta Air Lines flight from London and a United Airlines Flight from Madrid; and a Delta flight from Paris to Logan, Boston.
In all cases, the suspect flights were directed to side runways and their passengers and luggage taken off. They were carefully screened with the help of dogs trained to detect chemical and biological substances and tested for radioactive traces, before being pronounced clean and released.
This flood of false alarms was directed exclusively at packed international airliners flying to destinations on the US eastern seaboard.
US security agencies are concerned that terrorist organizations may be testing US agencies to discover their patterns of response. They also appear to be probing for weak spots or back doors for the commission of mega terror, hijacks, or attacks by chemical, biological or radioactive agents, and the options for fast getaways. They may also intend to wear down the alertness of the US authorities responsible for civil aviation safety by a rash of random threats that keeps them hopping futilely.
It is therefore vitally important to take advantage of the extraordinary capabilities of the NSA, in case they are shut down by the lapse of the Patriot Act, to track down the anonymous callers responsible for the false alarms coming from traceable sources, such as cell phones that can be pinpointed geographically, find out whether they were cranks, pranksters or terrorist activists, and punish them accordingly.