Key US PATRIOT Act antiterror provisions, including bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, were to expire at midnight unless US senators came up with an 11th-hour deal in an extraordinary Sunday afternoon session.
Chances for that looked all but nonexistent. Republican Senator Rand Paul, who is running for president, vowed on Saturday to force the bulk phone collection program to expire — and the Senate’s complex rules allow him to do just that, at least temporarily.
A US House of Representatives-passed bill backed by the White House that remakes the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone collection program is just three votes short in the Senate. However, even if it picks up the needed support despite opposition from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, moving to a final vote requires the assent of all senators. Paul made it crystal clear that he would not go along.
“I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program,” Paul said in a statement. “Sometimes when the problem is big enough, you just have to start over.”
Paul cannot hold off a final vote indefinitely, just for a few days. However, until the impasse is resolved, the NSA will lose its legal authority to collect and search domestic phone records for connections to international terrorists — a once-secret program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Two lesser-known PATRIOT Act provisions were also to expire: one, so far unused, that helps the agency track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power and another that allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who regularly discard their mobile phones.
The White House is raising dire warnings that letting the authorities expire would put Americans at risk.
“Heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who is engaged in dangerous activity, but we didn’t do so simply because of inaction in the Senate,” US President Barack Obama said on Friday.
The White House-backed USA FREEDOM Act would keep the programs operational, but shut down the bulk phone collection program over six months and give phone companies the job of maintaining records that the government could search.
Civil libertarians dispute the White House’s warnings, arguing that the surveillance programs have never been shown to produce major results.
“A great deal of the sturm und drang [storm and stress] over expiration of the PATRIOT Act is overstated... The sky is not going to fall,” American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero told reporters.
Paul’s opposition to the program has greatly complicated matters for fellow Kentuckian McConnell, who oversaw a chaotic late-night session the previous weekend, when the Senate tried and failed to pass the House bill and several straight-up extensions of current law. Paul’s presidential campaign is aggressively fundraising on the issue, and a super political action committee supporting Paul even produced an over-the-top video casting the dispute as a professional wrestling-style “brawl for liberty” between Paul and Obama — even though Paul’s main opponent on the issue is McConnell.
McConnell had little to say in response to Paul’s statement on Saturday.
“The leader has called the Senate back prior to the expiration of the expiring provisions to make every effort to provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs to combat terror,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.
McConnell supports an extension of current law, but even if the Senate agrees to that, the House is not in session, and could not approve it and send it to the president.
The NSA has already begun winding down the phone collection program in anticipation that it will not be renewed. To ensure that the program has completely ceased by the time authority for it expires at midnight, the agency planned to begin shutting down the servers that carry it out at 3:59pm yesterday. That step would be reversible for four hours — by which time it should have been evident whether there was any hope of a last-minute deal on Capitol Hill, but after that, rebooting would take about a day.