Much of the controversial Patriot Act expires June 1, and Congress faces three choices: Keep the National Security Administration’s (NSA) surveillance capabilities intact, lessen NSA’s power, or do nothing – effectively letting the law expire.
Keep It Together
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has introduced a bill to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enables the dragnet phone record collecting, until 2020. McConnell led the charge to keep the law in tact by defeating an NSA reform package last year.
McConnell fast-tracked his bill last month, bypassing committee hearings. By quickly introducing the bill in a near-empty chamber, he also highlighted a rift among fellow Republicans, pitting security hawks who want to keep the program intact, against the party’s libertarian wing which sees the Patriot Act as violating individual privacy rights.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), the bill’s co-sponsor, sees the legislation as more practical than political.
“This is to help stimulate our members beginning to look at the issue, to understand what this program is and more importantly understand its importance in our overall defense of the country,” Burr told reporters in the Capitol. “What the straight reauthorization does is [it] creates the fence that the debate is going to happen within.”
Supporters of the program also cite how it only collects the “to” and “from” information from phone calls and they must connect the dots from that context.
Rein in the Program
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her panel is discussing a path forward.
“I doubt that a straight reauthorization will succeed, so there needs to be a fallback,” Feinstein told reporters. “We have to come together, and we will.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT), aims to kneecap key provisions of the Patriot Act through the USA Freedom Act, ending the collection of phone records. Their legislation would allow Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook to disclose more information about government data requests, effectively giving such companies greater flexibility in how they can respond to national security orders. The bill would also require the NSA to seek phone records on individuals from service providers rather than compiling the information in bulk.
“If enacted, our bill will be the most significant reform to government-surveillance authorities since the USA Patriot Act was passed nearly 14 years ago,” Leahy said in a statement provided to National Journal. “The USA Freedom Act is a path forward that has the support of the administration, privacy groups, the technology industry, and – most importantly – the American people.”
The Center on Democracy and Technology and tech giants Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft and others support the measure, as noted in their Tumblr post via Reform Government Surveillance.
But not all privacy advocates are happy with the bill. Believing the Freedom Act needed certain concessions to ensure its passing, lawmakers expanded the temporary spying authorities for “targets” traveling in and out of the U.S. and an unrelated expansion of penalties for people convicted of lending “material support” to terrorism.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), author of the Patriot Act, has strongly opposed the NSA’s surveillance efforts and is leading efforts to change it, stating the current surveillance actions are “an abuse of that law.”
Let it Die
There is also a chance that Congress’s most significant action will be inaction – punting on its chance to change the law and letting it expire in June.
Although nearly a dozen House lawmakers from both parties back a bill to end the Patriot Act and the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, that measure appears largely symbolic.
But Congress could simply run out of time. If the two sides are unable to conjure a compromise, there is a chance the Patriot Act just fades away.
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