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Don’t Worry, the Government Still Has Plenty of Surveillance Power If Section 215 Sunsets

The story being spun by the defenders of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the Obama Administration is that if the law sunsets entirely, the government will lose critical surveillance capabilities. The fearmongering includes President Obama, who said: “heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could’ve prevented a terrorist attack or could’ve apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity but we didn’t do so.”

So how real is this concern? Not very. Section 215 is only one of a number of largely overlapping surveillance authorities, and the loss of the current version of the law will leave the government with a range of tools that is still incredibly powerful.

First, there’s the most famous use of Section 215—the bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA. Of course, no matter what law the government relies on, bulk surveillance is unconstitutional. But equally importantly, it doesn’t work. Every assessment about the bulk collection of telephone records, including two by hand-picked administration panels, have concluded that “collecting it all” hasn’t materially aided any terrorism investigation. The same goes for other still-secret bulk surveillance programs under Section 215, the latest evidence of which came in a recently released oversight report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).


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