In the past, long term re-authorizations of the USA PATRIOT Act have sailed through the Senate without controversy, but recent events have set up en epic battle between privacy advocates and national security hawks. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ cell phone records, authorized under the PATRIOT Act, is illegal. However, judges on the court stopped short of issuing an injunction that would terminate the program since its authorization expires on June 1.
Meanwhile, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are threatening to filibuster the renewal of PATRIOT Act section 215, which authorizes the NSA’s unpopular domestic cell phone spying program. The USA FREEDOM Act, which has been promoted by supporters as an effort to end the bulk phone records collection program, just passed the House of Representatives. However, congressional privacy advocates have said that the bill does not so much end the NSA program but instead outsources the job to private corporations by requiring them to, according to Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI), “hold, search, and analyze certain data at the request of the government.”
Now, National Journal is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a fast-track extension of the PATRIOT Act that would only re-authorize domestic spying through July 31. National Journal‘s Dustin Volz wrote, “By introducing a short-term clean re-authorization in addition to the House-passed reform measure known as the USA Freedom Act, McConnell may be seeking to forge some sort of compromise between the two measures. The Kentucky Republican and a group of GOP defense hawks have made a forceful case over the past month that reforms to the NSA’s surveillance operations could make Americans more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.”
Congressman Amash advanced his own theory on Twitter as to what McConnell intends to do and said, “McConnell is savvy. He likely supports #USAFreedomAct, b/c it authorizes bulk collection & NSA/FBI support it. But by pushing for clean #PatriotAct, McConnell buys leverage to make #USAFreedomAct even worse. He wins unless pro-privacy forces unite.”
Politico notes that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said, “How can one reauthorize something that’s illegal? This is not a partisan issue… Democrats and Republicans are united in reforming the National Security Agency and how they collect their data.”
A bipartisan joint statement by Senators Mike Lee and Ron Wyden read, “We will not agree to any extension of the NSA’s bulk-collection program, which has already been ruled unlawful by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate should not delay reform again this year.”
If the Senate does not act before June 1, the PATRIOT Act’s domestic spying provisions will expire. The Senate is preparing to consider three bills next week to address that controversy: the USA FREEDOM Act, a two-month extension of the PATRIOT Act, and a five-year PATRIOT Act re-authorization.