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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Dustin Volz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The San Bernardino shootings are reviving a debate about Washington’s digital surveillance effort to find and capture violent extremists, with the recent shutdown of a U.S. cellphone spying program coming under renewed criticism.

The debate is long-running and pits a huge and powerful national security apparatus against privacy and civil rights activists, who prevailed recently on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of cellphone metadata.

Just days before the shooting deaths of 14 people at an office party in California by a husband and wife with radical Islamist views but no extensive online profile, NSA bulk metadata collection was halted, replaced by a narrower program.

With Democratic President Barack Obama set to address the nation about counterterrorism on Sunday evening, some Republicans were saying the bulk metadata program’s shutdown diminished national security.

Obama has “weakened our ability to gather intelligence against potential adversaries,” Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said on Sunday on CNN.

On Web content more generally, Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that the volume of material to be monitored is massive.

“You just can’t stop it all when you have 200,000 ISIS tweets per day on the Internet coming into the United States to kill. … The volume is so high and the chatter is so high that it’s almost impossible to stop it all.”

Some lawmakers were expected to revive controversial legislation that would require social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to inform the government about posts that are deemed to promote “terrorist activity.” (http://reut.rs/1IJM8kV).

There have also been calls to weaken phone encryption to make it easier for the government to listen in. This idea has met fierce opposition from technology companies and privacy advocates, who warn weaker encryption would expose data to malicious hackers and undermine the Internet’s integrity.

Rubio said in his CNN remarks that the government now cannot access cellphone records more than two years old.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act, which was approved six months ago and forced the NSA to adopt a more targeted phone spying program, dispute Rubio’s interpretation of it.

The new law, a result mainly of the Edward Snowden disclosures, was backed by senior members of the intelligence community, and replaced a system that two independent review boards appointed by Obama concluded was ineffective.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)

A police officer picks up a weapon from the scene of the investigation around the area of the SUV vehicle where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.