In a little more than a month, elements of the PATRIOT Act are up for renewal. Among aspects being considered is the Section 215 program, an element which could suddenly disappear from the NSA’s surveillance arsenal if the provision isn’t re-upped yet again. (Or not. Wording in the most recent Section 215 authorization from the FISA court suggests it will just renew the order on June 1st unless it hears otherwise from Congress.)
With enough of a concerted non-effort, these provisions could simply expire. But there’s no way this date comes and goes without a vote. PATRIOT Act renewals have generally faced minimal opposition, but this year there’s a bit more uncertainty. A year-and-a-half of surveillance leaks has finally forced many legislators to confront what exactly they’re authorizing in the name of national security. The leaks have led directly to numerous bills seeking to curb the NSA’s domestic surveillance efforts. None have been successful to this point, but there’s enough ill will out there that this renewal isn’t the slam dunk it’s been in previous years.
Obviously well aware of this increased opposition, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a last-minute bill that would reauthorize the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions until the end of 2020. To ensure it gets to the floor before opposing bills or June 1st’s expiration date, McConnell and co-sponsor Richard Burr invoked a Senate rule that allowed them to bypass the usual process — namely its initial appearance before a Senate committee, which can then decide if the bill should move forward.
This allows McConnell and supporters to get a jump on Sen. Leahy’s revamped USA Freedom Act, which is due to be presented to the Senate committee Wednesday. (McConnell presented his bill Tuesday night). Leahy isn’t happy.
“Despite overwhelming consensus that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act must end, Senate Republican leaders are proposing to extend that authority without change,” he said in a statement Tuesday night. “This tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed. I will oppose any reauthorization of Section 215 that does not contain meaningful reforms.”
McConnell may not believe he has the votes necessary to push through a “no questions asked” renewal of these PATRIOT Act provisions, but his actions signal there’s still a number of senators willing to grant national security agencies whatever they need, whenever they ask.