Edward Snowden’s victory in the U.S. Senate over the National Security Agency (NSA) demonstrated the power of propaganda to shape attitudes and warp minds.
Even Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), once considered a foreign policy realist, fell victim to the propaganda campaign. He voted mostly with left-wing Democrats to destroy the NSA’s ability to review a government database of telephone numbers that could be linked to terrorist plots. Cruz, a presidential candidate, voted for an unworkable alternative—keeping the numbers in the hands of private telecommunications firms, an untested system which could fail at the precise moment when we need it most.
The result could be another successful terrorist attack on American soil, with perhaps thousands of dead Americans. Nothing can be predicted in this regard with any certainty, but it also remains to be seen how Republican voters will react to Cruz’s vote against the NSA, once they understand what the Senate was voting for, or against, on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his conservative allies had proposed three amendments to try to salvage most of the NSA’s terrorist surveillance authority. Cruz voted against all three.
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On the Senate floor, the anti-NSA campaign was led by Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, working with left-wing Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) had carved out a position that was even further to the left than Senators Lee and Leahy.
Former NSA executive Charlie Speight told Accuracy in Media that the politicians who voted for the so-called USA Freedom Act, the alternative legislation, fell victim to “flawed conventional wisdom,” otherwise known as misinformation. McConnell had gone further, calling the attacks on the NSA “demagoguery and disinformation.”
Speight said the anti-NSA forces “are celebrating ‘liberty’ [but] are actually celebrating the demise of a critical combat support tool,” a reference to the fact that the main mission of the intelligence agency is to provide information on terrorist activities to the U.S. Armed Forces.
Getting access to the telephone numbers in the form of metadata, in order to identify terrorist movements and their agents, is only one aspect of what the NSA is all about. It was this aspect of the NSA’s work that was blown way out of proportion and portrayed in the Snowden-friendly media as an illegal and unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
Tapping into enemy communications can always be controversial. But Speight says that if the NSA or its predecessors “had stopped operating at every obstacle or whenever things got difficult, the United States would have lost World War II and Cuba would be a massive Russian nuclear base.” The former NSA official was alluding to how the intelligence agency charged with protecting our troops and citizens has played a critical role at important times when America’s national security, and even survival, have been at stake.
Senator McConnell emerged in this debate as a real statesman who tried to do the right thing. As The Wall Street Journal noted, McConnell became the “rare honest actor” in the controversy. The Republican leadership in the House failed miserably at protecting U.S. national security.
By voting against McConnell, Cruz and eight or nine other Republican senators were voting for the Obama administration. Obama wanted the USA Freedom Act passed by the Senate without amendments. He got his way, and quickly signed it.
It’s true that the USA Freedom Act, as we heard over and over again, was passed by the Republican-controlled House and had Republican sponsors. But the real force behind the bill was the crafty left-wing veteran Democrat John Conyers (MI).
Conyers, with deep communist connections to such groups as the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), has been working for years to restrict intelligence gathering by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Conyers was clever this time around in getting libertarian Republicans to back his effort to neuter the NSA. That created the impression of a bipartisan effort, roping in various other Republicans who were unaware of the real agenda.
In fact, Democrats Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (NY), and Republicans such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (VA) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (WI) issued a joint statement hailing the “new” and “targeted tools” for the NSA. The term “targeted” actually means that it will be harder to get data on terrorist contacts in the U.S.
As a result, we may be about to see a repetition of what happened in the 1980s, when the government’s use of information from NSA surveillance ran into a “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence. The “wall” meant that the FBI did not pursue two al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. who planned the 9/11 attacks.
The successful attack on the NSA came as Michael B. Steinbach, FBI Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division, was delivering a statement before the House Homeland Security Committee, warning of the growing influence that groups like the Islamic State “have on individuals located in the United States who are inspired to commit acts of violence.”
As part of the propaganda campaign to pass the USA Freedom Act, groups like the ACLU had misquoted a Justice Department study to suggest that information gathered by the NSA had played no significant role in FBI investigations of terrorists. They omitted the part of the report confirming that the FBI used the NSA information “to support other investigative requests, develop investigative leads, and corroborate other information.”
It’s sad to see a senator like Ted Cruz go along with the anti-NSA campaign.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), another presidential candidate, did not fall victim to the propaganda. Rubio had rightly complained about the “reckless spreading of misinformation and political posturing” that characterized those arguing against the system incorporated in Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Rubio voted for all three amendments designed to save the NSA’s intelligence-gathering abilities.
The Wall Street Journal noted in its editorial on McConnell’s efforts to save the powers and authority of the NSA that “harm from the House bill may not surface until the next successful terror plot, and a faux metadata program undermines political accountability. If something does go wrong before a preventable attack, Members of Congress can blame the telephone companies, or the intelligence community, or the President, while ignoring their own role.”
The politicians may try to shift the blame after the dead bodies pile up. This time, however, we have the evidence of who voted which way in the form of the Senate roll call votes on amendments to the USA Freedom Act.
In arguing for his amendments, McConnell noted that the Associated Press had declared the passage of the House bill a “victory for Edward Snowden.” It’s true: that’s what the AP reported. The NSA defector won another victory when the Senate passed the House bill.
Of course, Snowden is living in Moscow under the protection of Vladimir Putin’s intelligence service, the FSB. Meanwhile, Americans will have to depend on the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and a badly weakened NSA.
When Snowden wins, we lose.
From the standpoint of strengthening national security, it’s hard to see how the Cruz presidential campaign recovers from such a monumental mistake.
“The USA Freedom Act is the right policy approach,” Cruz still insists, adding that the measure “ensures that we maintain the tools that are needed to target violent terrorists and prevent acts of terror.” He’s betting the lives of the American people that he’s right. It’s not a risk that a responsible political leader should make.
Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.