Allow the FBI to Track Terrorists Online

A little longer than a year ago, two Islamic State-inspired terrorists, clad in body armor and armed with assault rifles and 1,500 rounds of ammunition, drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland to kill as many people as possible. Fortunately, law enforcement immediately took action and the terrorists were killed before they could step foot inside and open fire on the estimated 150 people there.

Dallas, and our state, avoided what could have been a real tragedy that day. But in the months since then, we've seen more and more cases of people becoming self-radicalized here in the United States. Omar Mateen, the Orlando terrorist, serves as the most recent example of an American citizen turned extremist.

In today's interconnected world, terrorists abroad don't have to come to the United States to wreak havoc. Videos, tweets and social media posts quickly become the gasoline that can fuel Americans to radicalize and carry out deadly attacks. In other words, the battle is being waged at home and over the internet just as it is being waged in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rise of home-grown terrorism, and the massive online terrorist networks that facilitate it, poses a clear and present danger to the United States. Law enforcement officers don't have speedy access to critical pieces of information they need to identify, investigate and prosecute terrorists here at home. And because of that, they're not able to collect the dots to connect the dots to investigate and lock up suspected terrorists.

Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has the authority to get the financial and telephone records of suspected terrorists using a subpoena called a national security letter. But because of a drafting error in the law, the FBI can't readily access the same information on these new techniques the Islamic State uses to recruit and radicalize violent extremists online. The bottom line is that our law enforcement officials lack the modern tools they need to address the evolving threats we face.

An amendment to a government funding bill I recently supported would correct this error and give the FBI the ability to collect and analyze the records of potential terrorists' electronic communications. Put another way, the legislation would help the FBI track down terrorists, and it would do so without infringing on the privacy or rights of Americans.

This amendment would not grant the government access to the content of Americans' online activity. It would simply give investigators a chance to review the internet metadata of suspected terrorists, like who they talked to and where they went online. Law enforcement would still need a search warrant from a judge to learn the contents of a message.

The measure has broad bipartisan support in the Senate. James Comey, the director of the FBI, has called it a top legislative priority. President Barack Obama supports it too and wants this legislation passed. In other words, this is a bipartisan priority that has united a lot of people who usually hold very different views.

The foiled attack in Garland serves as an example of homegrown terrorists thwarted in their mission to attack our communities. We don't know what the FBI would have discovered about the terrorists in Orlando or San Bernardino if they had this authority. But we should do all we can to help our public servants collect what they need to do their jobs, defend our homeland and better guard against future terrorist attacks.

Originally published on The Dallas Morning News.


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