Washington’s intelligence leaders flooded US television studios on Sunday, to warn of the dangers of homegrown terrorism in a concerted push that coincided with a looming deadline to reauthorise the domestic surveillance powers of the National Security Agency.
Seizing on last week’s failed attack on a Texas contest to draw cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the chairmen of three congressional security committees, two former CIA directors and the secretary for homeland security all urged greater scrutiny of domestic extremists they claim have been inspired by the Islamic State.
“Terrorism has gone viral,” said Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House homeland security committee, telling Fox News Sunday there were “thousands of people in the United States who will take up this call to arms when Isis sends out an internet missive, a tweet, to launch a terror act like we saw in Garland in Texas”.
“We are very definitely in a new phase in the global terrorism threat where the so-called lone wolf could strike at any moment,” said Jeh Johnson, Barack Obama’s secretary for homeland security, on ABC.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden told CNN: “I think the tide’s coming in and we’re going to see more of what we saw in Texas last week.”
Little evidence has yet emerged to support Isis claims of direct responsibility for the Garland attack, in which the two gunmen were the only people killed, although FBI director James Comey has argued that the distinction between inspiring and directing attacks is “irrelevant”, claiming social media propaganda meant “it’s almost as if there is a devil sitting on the shoulder saying, ‘kill, kill, kill,’ all day long”.
“This threat is like finding a needle in a haystack and it’s going to get worse, not better,” McCaul added. “I think the threat environment today is one of the highest I have ever seen.”
Controversial NSA powers to monitor suspicious communication by collecting all American phone records are due to expire at the end of the month, a circumstance that was dramatically complicated by a US appeal court judgment on Thursday ruling the practice first revealed by Edward Snowden to be unlawful.
A number of lawmakers warned on Sunday the Garland attack showed why it was essential Congress face down opposition to the so-called “bulk collection” programme and reauthorise the original Patriot Act provision, despite Thursday’s legal challenge.
“I hope that the reality of the situation, the reality of the threats we face, will actually play a great part in terms of exactly how Congress responds,” Senate homeland security chairman Ron Johnson told CNN.
“Our first line of defence is an effective intelligence-gathering capability,” the Wisconsin Republican added. “I think the demagoguery and the revelations of Edward Snowden have done a great deal of harm to our ability to gather that information.”
Richard Burr, Republican chair of the Senate intelligence committee, also insisted the Patriot Act provision should be reauthorised rather than amended when it expires on 1 June.
“It’s very effective at keeping America safe,” he told ABC, claiming the alternative USA Freedom Act, which would rely on phone companies to keep records rather than the NSA, “turns us back to pre-9/11” days.
But the court of appeals decision, which rejected the argument that bulk collection is permissible even under the existing Patriot Act, has dramatically complicated attempts by Senate Republicans to reauthorise it in the eight remaining days that both chambers are sitting this month. It may force them to choose between backing the more moderate USA Freedom Act or seeing all surveillance authority vanish when the current law lapses.
Privacy concerns among Republicans in the House have led committee leadership there to join forces with the White House and many Democrats to back the USA Freedom Act.
“I think that’s where we are going to see the Congress heading towards, and the courts have certainly gone in that direction,” McCaul said on Sunday.
“As long as we can get information in real time from the private sector, I think we can forge the right balance between [privacy and security].”
Dianne Feinstein, the previous chair of the Senate intelligence committee and one of the more hawkish Democrats, agreed the USA Freedom Act was probably the best option remaining for the NSA, though she expressed concerns about whether it would work.
“The president, the House and a number of members of the Senate believe that we need to change that programme and the way to change it is simply to go to the Fisa court for a query, for permission to go to a telecom and get that data,” the California senator told NBC.
“The question is whether the telecoms will hold the data and the answer to that question is somewhat mixed. I know the president believes the telecoms will hold the data. I think we should try that.”