White House Refuses To Say If We're 'Less Safe' After PATRIOT Act Provisions Expired

from the telling dept

Last week, we wrote about the NY Times allowing White House officials to go on the record anonymously claiming that all hell will break loose if Congress didn't figure out a way to extend Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Here were the ridiculously over-the-top statements from the White House, which the NY Times stenographer dutifully copied down without question or counterpoint:
“What you’re doing, essentially, is you’re playing national security Russian roulette,” one senior administration official said of allowing the powers to lapse. That prospect appears increasingly likely with the measure, the USA Freedom Act, stalled and lawmakers in their home states and districts during a congressional recess.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” another senior member of the administration said at a briefing organized by the White House, where three officials spoke with reporters about the consequences of inaction by Congress. “We have not had to confront addressing the terrorist threat without these authorities, and it’s going to be fraught with unnecessary risk.”
And, now, of course, as you know, the various minor surveillance provisions have, in fact, expired, if only briefly, meaning that the programs are kinda, sorta no longer running (there are exceptions, other authorities and the ability to "grandfather" in some investigations... so...). Given all that ridiculous bluster last week, you'd think that the White House (now on the record, as opposed to hiding behind bogus "senior official" monikers) would be willing to come out and say that we're now less safe.

No dice.

In yesterday's press briefing, chief spokesperson Josh Earnest did everything possible to avoid the question. He did kick it off by saying that the results "have had an impact on the ability -- or on the authorities that our national security professionals can use to keep us safe," but that's tap dancing. Of course it "has an impact." It took away some programs. But the question is what kind of impact? And there, Earnest will not say. At all.
Well, I don’t have any details to share about either ongoing or recently started national security investigations. What we’ve also acknowledged is true is that our national security professionals have other tools that they can use to conduct investigations. They don’t have tools that replace these critically -- these important authorities, but there are other tools that they can use to conduct investigations.
First of all, the programs in question have not been shown to be "critical" or "important." The lone wolf provision has never even been used, and the 215 program (despite being illegal under 215 according to the 2nd Circuit appeals court) has been reviewed by multiple judges, Senate intelligence staffers and two separate White House advisory boards and was found not to have been useful in stopping a single domestic terrorist attack. So why does he keep claiming they're "critical" or "important"?

One reporter calls him out on this, asking about any examples of where those programs have been useful, and Earnest provides nothing:
Q Just first, on the security of Americans right now. You weren’t able to comment about whether in these 13 hours there’s been any problems. But let’s go back, if we can, in history here. Can you point to anything in the past that would not have been successful under these current conditions? Is there somebody we would not have caught? Is there something that you could explain to Americans why this is so important, using history?

MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- probably not in as much detail as will satisfy you right at the top here, but I think I can offer up two compelling reasons why our national security professionals say that having these authorities is important to the national security of the country.

The first is that there are recent examples -- I can’t go into those examples -- but recent examples where our national security professionals say that information that they obtained using these authorities was information that they were not previously aware of. And that’s an indication that these authorities have succeeded in eliciting information that’s been critical to ongoing investigations.

The second thing is that the way that our investigators talk about this information is that these pieces of information as they’re collected are critically important building blocks to an investigation. And what that means is it means that a clearer picture is provided when you put a variety of pieces of information together; that as it fits together, you get a clearer sense of what it is that you’re investigating.
Got that? He can't say if they've actually been useful (because they haven't), but he can say, without providing any details, that some information obtained under these programs was "information they were not previously aware of." But, again, if that's the standard under which these things are judged, you can authorize just about any program at all. That's not the point. The standard needs to be (1) does the program obey the Constitution and (2) is it critical to investigations. These programs have failed on both accounts.

Then we get to the big question: given the statements last week, does this mean that we're now all less safe? One reporter asks the question by requesting Earnest rank the situation:
Q So I think what many in the public might want to really hear from the White House is, on a scale of one to ten, how much less safe are we today than we were on Saturday?

MR. EARNEST: Well, that is something that our national security professionals can speak more directly to. I think the way that I would characterize it is simply this, Jim -- that we have these authorities that were included in the Patriot Act, the majority of which are not controversial and have been in place since 2001, and as our national security professionals tell us, have been used to elicit information that’s been valuable to ongoing national security investigations.
Okay, so that's not answering the question. And then Earnest goes into silly town:
And so the question that you’ve heard me offer up a few times from the podium here over the last week or so is simply, why would we add unnecessary risk to the country and our national security because of Congress’s failure to act?
1. Because the existing program is unconstitutional. And 2. Because there is no evidence that it adds any unnecessary risk -- as shown by the fact that even you won't say that we're any less safe today than in the past.

After a few other questions, another reporter goes back to that question of how much less safe are we. Again, Earnest refuses to answer:
Q Good to see you. You didn’t answer Jim’s question about the 1 to 10 point scale. But just to really put it bluntly, are the American people clearly less safe today than they were last week?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that is a judgment that one of our national security professionals could make based on their own efforts to investigate this.

Q Right, but you went through this whole list of things that are not available now. It sounds that the implication of that is that we are less safe now than we were just a day or two ago.

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let people draw whatever conclusion they would like. But the one -- the fact that I can confirm for you is that there are specific tools that our national security professionals have previously used to conduct national security investigations that they can, as of today, no longer use because of the partisan dysfunction in the United States Senate.
That same reporter then follows it up by pointing to CIA director John Brennan's fearmongering about what will happen, to ask the question another way. And, again, Earnest employs his expertise in tap dancing:
Q CIA Director Brennan said over the weekend that if the law lapsed, and of course it now has, the FBI would lose the ability to track people intent on carrying out attacks on the homeland. Is that correct?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm certainly not going to contradict the Director of the CIA --

Q So we have lost the ability for -- the FBI has lost the ability to track people who are intent on carrying out attacks on the homeland?

MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a variety of tools that are used by our national security professionals to conduct both law enforcement and national security investigations. But what is clear is that there are tools that are critical to that effort that are no longer available -- or at least as of today are no available to our national security professionals.
Except those tools are not critical. He keeps saying they are, even though everyone who's looked at them has said otherwise.

The same reporter then points to a quote from Senator Lindsey Graham claiming that we're less safe today, and asking for a comment from the White House, leading to this:
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been a number of pronouncements and accusations that have been lobbed by those who aspire to occupy the Oval Office in early 2017. And I'm not going to get into a -- I’ve done my best to try to avoid getting into a back and forth with any of them on a specific issue. So while I obviously disagree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Graham, I don’t have an interest in getting into a back and forth with him at this point.

Q So we’re not less safe today?

MR. EARNEST: I obviously don’t agree with what Senator Graham had to say today in kicking off his campaign.
Hmm. So, it appears that he's saying that we're not, in fact, less safe, after refusing to answer that question directly, and he "doesn't agree" with Graham's comments that we are less safe.

A while later, another reporter brings up the fact that there's no evidence at all that these programs were ever useful, and notes how weird it is that Earnest won't comment on how the programs were actually useful and won't say if we're "less safe" now that the program has expired:
Q People who are opposed to certain parts of the Patriot Act have been pretty explicit in outlining these ways that they didn’t really help certain cases, or that there are other methods to get the same information. But conversely, you and the administration, you can’t list or won’t list any concrete examples of how it did help; you won’t say whether the American public is less safe now. If this is so important, doesn’t your argument seem to be weaker than those in opposition? And isn’t that contributing to the controversy that’s out there?

MR. EARNEST: That certainly is not the conclusion of 338 Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who came together around a common-sense bipartisan proposal that would implement reforms, that would strengthen civil liberties protections while also reauthorizing tools that our national security professionals say are important to keeping us safe.

I think the other thing that’s true is that we’ve heard a lot of claims on the other side of this argument that haven’t borne out to be true. And there has been an effort on the part of the administration, even given the constraints that we have about talking about classified or highly sensitive national security programs, to be as honest and forthright and candid about these programs and about the impact that they have on our national security.
What? "As honest and forthright and candid about these programs and about the impact that they have on our national security"? Is he joking? The administration has been nothing but unclear, dishonest and misleading about all of those things -- and that's continued in this very press briefing. The programs have been conclusively proven not to be useful (and likely not to be constitutional), yet he keeps insisting they're "critical" or "important." And then, after fearmongering about what would happen if they expired, the administration refuses to now say we're "less safe" because of the political baggage that would entail.

The whole thing is political. The President knows that saying "we're less safe now" is politically damaging (especially when it's not true). It's pure fearmongering. They said it beforehand to try to get their way, but now know that it will look "weak" to say it today. It's all a big theatrical political show.
Q But when we keep talking about national security, you use the word “safe” almost every other word in some of your statements. So if you feel so strongly about some of these programs without being able to give any concrete examples of them working, why can’t you at least say that the American public is less safe without them? It almost seems like you’re going just up to that point. Do you feel that way or don’t you feel that way?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I would encourage you to ask some of our national security professionals. You’ve heard the FBI Director, Jim Comey, talk about how important these tools are to their work. I saw that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, was on Chip’s network over the weekend, talking about how these programs and these authorities were integral to the efforts of the intelligence community. So I would defer to those professionals. They can give you the best assessment.

All I can say is -- make the simple, fact-based observation that there are tools that our national security professionals say are important to their work that today they don’t have because of a bunch of Republican senators who played politics with these issue over the last couple of weeks.
In other words, the President won't say we're less safe, because (1) it's not true and (2) it's not politically feasible (or, really, reverse that order), but I'll point you to the fearmongerers in charge who want more power, because they'll say just about anything to get more powers to spy on Americans.

And despite their refusing to answer the question, those pesky reporters keep going back to it:
Q I want to just follow up on something Michelle asked you. I’ve seen you be very forceful about a number of issues, but I also can tell when you’re being careful. It seems to me when you won’t just come out and say “we are less safe,” there’s a reason behind it. And I’m just wondering, is it because, frankly, we’re not less safe because the Patriot Act provisions have elapsed? Are we basically the same because there are plenty of other tools available already?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, all I can do is I can illustrate to you very clearly that there are tools that had previously been available to our national security professionals that are not available today because the Senate didn’t do their job, because we saw Republicans in the Senate engage in a lot of political back and forth as opposed to engaging in the critically important work of the country.

And as a result, there are programs and tools that our national security professionals themselves say are important to their work that are not available to them right now as we speak. And that’s why we urge the Senate to set aside the politicking and actually focus on their basic responsibility. And we’re hopeful that they will vote in favor of the common-sense, bipartisan reform proposal that’s already passed the House of Representatives.
Once again, this is all just political theater. Everyone knows that these provisions are not critical and not necessary, and having them expire is more symbolic than anything else. But no one seems to be willing to flat out call the administration's bluff here. It insisted these programs were necessary and now that they're gone, no one is any less safe at all.

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  • icon
    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 10:43am

    “We’re in uncharted waters,” another senior member of the administration said...

    Are oceanographic records part of the 'tangible things' sought by Section 215?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 10:55am

    Wait a sec

    What's this? Reporters asking difficult questions? And repeating the question when they don't get an answer?

    Did I just get sucked into a time warp or something?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sorrykb (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:06am

    "...there has been an effort on the part of the administration, even given the constraints that we have about talking about classified or highly sensitive national security programs, to be as honest and forthright and candid about these programs and about the impact that they have on our national security."
    What? "As honest and forthright and candid about these programs and about the impact that they have on our national security"? Is he joking?

    Not at all. Reread the statement. He used the comparative "as", but without noting what he's comparing the administration too. We could assume he means "as honest... as possible", but that's not what he said.

    So we're free to complete the sentence however we wish. For example: "There has been an effort on the part of the administration... to be as honest and forthright and candid ... as we have been in the past."
    Which would be entirely truthful, since this administration is about as transparent as a box of mud.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TasMot (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:11am

    Well, those blasted Senators, they are just starting to listen to their constituents about the massive invasion of privacy that they don't like due to the programs that they let expire that the administration can't say is making us less safe. MR. EARNEST seems to be very good at making long vaguely accusing sentences that don't answer the question but do point the finger somewhere else for letting a very expensive program expire that has no evidence of doing anything.
    An extremely huge piece of the problem is that "supposedly" these programs are protecting us, you know, the citizens of the US. However; us little kiddies are just too untrustworthy to know anything about all of these extremely expensive programs we have to pay for anyway.
    What I get out of that interview is that MR. EARNEST wants all of the 1st graders that are asking him the hard questions to just shut up and pay his expensive salary, BECAUSE, he know's better than us based on the non-existent evidence they can't show us, because, you know it would make us less safe (only they can't say so).

    P.S. Am I getting any good at really long vague sentences that don't really say anything?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:12am

    Seriously?

    You have a press conference about controversial surveillance programs that have been declared illegal by federal courts and the White House sends a guy named Mr. EARNEST to conduct it? Irony. Who wrote this script? Oscar Wilde?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MadAsASnake (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:21am

    Let me just get this straight: section 215 of the patriot act was being used to justify programs that it did not authorize, programs that have been declared unconstitutional and illegal, and now 215 has lapsed? Can anyone tell me that the NSA has actually stopped collecting data under that program?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:34am

      Re:

      My guess is that they simply came up with a different justification for it somehow that has yet to be uncovered.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 5:42pm

        Re: Re:

        My guess is that they simply came up with a different justification for it somehow that has yet to be uncovered.

        The cynic in me says this (Patriot Act sunset) was all a big show put on by the spies and their supporters about stuff they didn't really much care about. This gave Congress something to foam at the mouth about and kept them busy (doing nothing of any real value to anyone but themselves).

        Meanwhile, Five Eyes carries on as usual. Britain's GCHQ and Canada's CSIS and Germany's BND (well, maybe not that last one) will happily spy on the USA and hand over anything the NSA desires; business as usual.

        I hate being cynical.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      TasMot (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:36am

      Re:

      I would go with a loud and fully unqualified "NO". They fully expect that the programs will be re-authorized in some form or fashion very soon, and so nothing will stop "until they are really, really, really, ... sure" that the programs will actually need to be stopped. And even then, there will probably have to be a long drawn out multi-year court battle that no one is allowed to be in except the people with the proper clearances (and that does not include the Senators, the Members of the House of Representatives, reporters - legitimately recognized or not, civil rights groups, or citizens of the US). That will come in maybe the next 5 years or so. Until then expect to continue to foot the bill for some very expensive non-programs. Well, unless they can figure out how to just shift it under some other "program", "authorization", or "organization" that can keep it going somehow and just no longer call it by the existing code name. Just prepare yourself for a LOT more tap dancing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stan Smith (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:08pm

    One Further Question

    I would like to have heard a reporter ask Mr.Earnest if he felt those Republican Senators were wrong in questioning the Bill. If he said yes the follow up would then have to be "So, the duly elected representatives of the citizenry who have listened to their constituents should be ignored? Is that what you are saying?"
    Perhaps that would give him pause to reflect that the will of the people is being put forth here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 6:03pm

      Re: One Further Question

      Perhaps that would give him pause to reflect that the will of the people is being put forth here.

      Haaa, ha, ha, ha, ... Good one. It's hard for me to believe that any of those involved in this mess could give a rat's ass for that "will of the people" stuff. Modern politicians tolerate these four year election cycle things, just hoping to get it quickly out of the way so they can get back to the serious business of raping the treasury, self-aggrandizement, and personal empire building.

      "We The People" are just sheep waiting to be sheered, resources they can play with or torment at their will.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 12:54pm

    "Who screwed up and sent actual reporters?!"

    He had to have been furious after the event, seriously put out that the various press agencies didn't follow the script and just take everything he said at face value.

    I mean come now, questioning the government? That's terrorist thinking there. A good citizen is an obedient one, patriotically accepting whatever their rulers say without question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:34pm

    They might not be saying, but I bet we all know what they are thinking.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Coyne Tibbets (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 2:36pm

      Re:

      ...and what they are thinking is that they didn't need the PATRIOT act anyway. Grinning to themselves as the use the authorizations in the NDAA.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 3:24pm

    How can they create fake terrorism plots now to prove how much their useless security state laws are needed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 2 Jun 2015 @ 5:29pm

    Call the administration's bluff?

    But no one seems to be willing to flat out call the administration's bluff here.

    Just from reading this story, it does appear that reporter after reporter did exactly that. Mr. Earnest appears to be doing little more than reiterating Obama's fear mongering talking points from the weekend.

    I'd like to offer my congratulations. You didn't fall for it, Congress didn't fall for it, the surveillance society has received a well deserved slap in the face, and tyrants have been forced to scurry back into their holes for now. There's hope for us yet. Keep on 'em. The beast is a bit more on the ropes now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:03pm

    Yes it's political theater and Josh Earnest is a horrible actor. Refuses to say if we're less secure or not. Give me a break!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Jun 2015 @ 11:48pm

    All I can say is -- make the simple, fact-based observation that there are tools that our national security professionals say are important to their work that today they don’t have...
    There actually isn't any inherent contradiction between this statement and the idea that we're just as safe as we ever were, as long as it's understood that the work of "national security professionals" has very little to do with keeping Americans safe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 3 Jun 2015 @ 2:56am

    MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, all I can do is I can illustrate to you very clearly that there are tools that had previously been available to our national security professionals that are not available today because the Senate didn’t do their job, because we saw Republicans in the Senate engage in a lot of political back and forth as opposed to engaging in the critically important work of the country.


    He illustrates absolutely nothing but a caricature of himself. The statement that the Senate didn't do their job is beyond the pale. Looks like they are finally doing their job, for whatever reason. It was critically important to let these provisions lapse. Who is this crazypants to tell the legislative branch what their job is? That's the job of the Constitution, the People, and other law, not some Administration hack who can't even answer a simple question. (No points for repeating bullshit calmly as many times as it takes to finish the event.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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