On Saturday, Congress adjourned for a week-long recess, leaving the final decision on the future of Section 215 of the Patriot Act up to a last minute vote when they return on May 31, one day before the section is set to expire.
According to the New York Times, senior lawmakers are “scrambling this week in rare recess negotiations to agree on a face-saving change to legislation” that would save a form of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is used by the NSA to justify its bulk collection of Americans’ data. Lawmakers created the USA Freedom Act, and presented it as a way to end the NSA’s bulk data collection. However, those in opposition to the bill, such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said that it wouldn’t end the collection; it would only change the channels the government went through to collect Americans’ records.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told the New York Times that a “series of phone calls and staff meetings over the weeklong Memorial Day break should be enough to reach agreement on changes to the USA Freedom Act,” and should win over the three senators needed, in order to pass the bill.
“That is the goal: Work it out over the break,” said Nunes, who explained that he believes the whole argument surrounding the program has turned into a “circus act.”
“It’s just unfortunate,” Mr. Nunes said. “We’ve wasted a considerable amount of legislative time, both in the House and the Senate, on something that is really trivial. This is a program that is very important but very seldom used.”
GOP Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been the face of the campaign to abolish the NSA’s surveillance program altogether. Paul took to the floor of the Senate for 10 hours and 30 minutes on Wednesday to filibuster the renewal of Section 215, and he was a prominent voice against the act’s extension, when it came to a vote on Friday.
“There comes to a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer,” Paul said. “That time is now. And I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.”
Lawmakers such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, pushed for a “clean” extension of the NSA’s bulk data collection, even though it was recently ruled illegal by a federal appeals court.
After the Senate declined to pass the USA Freedom Act on Friday, McConnell tried to push an extension of the Patriot Act to June 8, to June 5, to June 3, and to June 2. Paul continued to object, and no extension was agreed upon.
According to a memo from the Department of Justice, because no renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act was passed, the NSA will now “begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata.”
However, Burr said that the Obama administration’s claim that the NSA program’s shutdown has begun was “disingenuous,” and that the real shutdown would not occur until 4 p.m. on May 31, after the Senate has an opportunity to save it.