Marco Rubio backs bill to stop NSA from deleting old metadata

Marco Rubio wants to reverse key provisions of landmark surveillance-reform legislation.

The Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate on Wednesday co-sponsored Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)’s bill, the Liberty Through Strength Act II, which would preserve data from the National Security Agency’s bulk phone-metadata collection program and revive two other government surveillance powers.

Congress ended the metadata program and eliminated the “lone wolf” and “roving wiretap” powers when it passed the USA Freedom Act in June. Pursuant to that law, the metadata program officially ended on Sunday at midnight. The NSA must now get a warrant and ask phone companies to provide specific phone records, although it still has another way to collect bulk records.

Cotton introduced the first Liberty Through Strength Act last month to delay the end of the primary metadata program, but it did not get a vote in time.

The roving-wiretap provision lets the government use one warrant to track a suspected terrorist as he or she switches electronic devices, rather than obtaining separate warrants to surveil each device. The lone wolf provision lets the government treat each suspected terrorist as equivalent to an “agent of a foreign power” for investigative purposes.

“Our intelligence professionals are our first line of defense, and by taking effective tools away from them they are less able to connect the dots needed to prevent foreign operatives from entering our country and also defend against homegrown radicalism that can lead to lone wolf terrorist attacks,” Rubio said in a statement.

The NSA obtained permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to retain old metadata collected through its program for technical testing purposes and to comply with pending litigation over the program. Once that lawsuit is resolved and the technical analysis window has ended, the NSA will delete the metadata. Cotton’s new bill would prevent that from happening.

A federal appeals court ruled in May that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, used as the basis for the metadata program, never actually authorized that operation, and a presidential review group concluded in December 2013 that “the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of Section 215 telephony metadata was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional Section 215 order.”

Rubio has turned the USA Freedom Act, the most significant surveillance-reform legislation in decades, into an issue on the 2016 campaign trail. He has blasted fellow candidates Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for voting for the bill and repeatedly said that it will make America less safe.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.