BOSTON — Senators who oversee intelligence gathering and national security reacted with deep concern Thursday to details emerging from the case of a Boston man with suspected ties to ISIS who was shot to death by police earlier this week.
The shooting of Usaamah Rahim comes in the wake of rollbacks to Patriot Act provisions designed to track communications of suspected terrorists.
“I’m highly concerned about the security of this nation across the board,” said Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “These threats aren’t diminishing. They’re growing, and we need to recognize that reality. We can’t put our heads in the sand.”
Senate Intelligence Committee members will be briefed on the emerging details of the case Thursday afternoon, but the committee’s chairman told CNN the suspect’s plan was clearly linked to ISIS.
“I think right now you can confidently say it emanated from ISIS,” said Sen. Richard Burr. The Republican from North Carolina would not say why he was certain of this, and it was not clear if Burr believes Rahim was inspired by ISIS or directed by ISIS, a key question lawmakers and investigators are trying to answer.
Police believe Rahim, a 26-year-old devout Muslim, was radicalized by the terror group and had initially planned to behead Pamela Geller, a conservative activist, before turning his attention to an attack on police officers. He was killed Tuesday after charging several officers with a knife, and had been under federal surveillance as part of an ongoing terrorism investigation.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the plot to kill Geller was in line with other ISIS efforts to inspire followers to carry out attacks.
“They do whatever they can do against military, against police, against individuals,” she said.
As part of the probe, David Wright, 25, an associate of Rahim’s, was arrested and charged with obstruction. Authorities are now trying to determine the extent of Rahim’s network. Officers have raided locations in Massachusetts, where Rahim lived, and a Rhode Island home belonging to another associate. Investigators have not revealed the results of the raids.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was essential to find out whether Rahim was self-radicalized or in direct contact with ISIS or another group, and whether he has any additional associates. She argued that reforms made to the Patriot Act’s metadata collection program, known as Section 215, would make it harder to answer these questions.
“Are they part of a cell in this country? Are they acting independently? Are they self-radicalized? Have they been in contact with ISIS or al Nusra or al Qaeda or any of the other terrorist groups that have threatened us? So there’s a lot that we don’t know yet,” she said. “That’s absolutely the key question, and that’s why it’s so important that we have the authorities under section 215. It’s the height of irony that this incident has occurred after that law has been substantially weakened.”
The new law will end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone metadata in six months, instead relying on telecommunications companies to store that information. To access the data, the government will have to apply for a warrant, a process that critics say will slow down investigations.
But Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and was a champion of reforming the surveillance programs, stood by the reforms to the NSA program, which had large bipartisan support in both houses.
“Obviously, if you serve on the Intelligence Committee, you understand that this is a dangerous time,” he said. “The real question, as we’ve seen again in this debate, is finding approaches that make us safer and protect our liberty. What the Senate realized this week, with respect to collecting all these phone records on law-abiding individuals, we were talking about an approach that did not make us safer and at the same time compromised our liberties.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he didn’t receive any indication at a classified briefing on the plot that there were any security failures in tracking the suspects.
“As far I’ve been told and informed, the system worked,” he said.