Fate of Domestic Surveillance Left to the 11th Hour
Efforts in Congress to retain the federal government’s mass surveillance powers took a setback on May 23 as a group of Republican senators blocked legislation aimed at extending three key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, just eight days before the clauses were scheduled to expire.
The senators, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, helped defeat a bill whose Section 215 would have extended provisions of the Patriot Act that allow federal agencies to indiscriminately collect bulk data on the phone records of Americans. This in addition to conducting warrantless spying on non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, and, without ever having to identify them by name, wiretapping their phone lines, mobile communications devices or Internet connections.
The bill, backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky, sought to extend those surveillance programs for two months beyond their June 1 sunset. The bill was defeated 57-42 on a procedural vote that fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold required for its passage.
Immediately before the bill’s defeat, the Senate also rejected a bipartisan measure—the USA Freedom Act—that was approved by the House of Representatives on May 13. The legislation seeks to change the Patriot Act by ending the government’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records while still allowing federal agencies to access the information from phone companies on a case-by-case basis.
The measure fell three votes short of the 60 votes it required to succeed in the Senate, with 12 Republican senators voting for it. The 57 to 42 vote tally followed a vigorous debate and intense last-minute pressure from senior Republican leaders. But those efforts ultimately proved ineffective in the face of stiff opposition from a group of relatively younger libertarian-leaning Republican senators led by Sen. Paul.
A candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Paul has long opposed extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act by even a single day. On May 20-21, he spoke in the Senate against the provision for over 10 hours, arguing that Section 215 is harmful to liberty and privacy—a stand that the American Civil Liberties Union has also taken since the Patriot Act was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (On May 7, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU in a case against the government over Section 215.)
The back-to-back votes in the Senate, which came minutes before lawmakers broke for recess following a six-week session, were interpreted by media as a major embarrassment for Sen. McConnell. Just hours earlier, McConnell had been cheered by the successful passage of a “fast track” trade promotion bill related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade alliance opposed by a variety of public interest and human rights groups, partly because it has been secretly negotiated.
In hopes that lawmakers might still come to an agreement over the Patriot Act, McConnell said he would reconvene the Senate on May 31, just hours before the midnight deadline to extend the law’s key provisions.