The U.S. Senate was deadlocked on Friday over whether to extend authorization for the National Security Agency's massive collection of domestic telephone records, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisting the surveillance program should continue with no new limits.
With a weekend deadline looming, McConnell advocated for extending the section of the Patriot Act that the NSA has used to justify its collection of millions of U.S. phone records over the last nine years. Section 215 of the Act, which allows the agency to collect any telephone and business records relevant to a counterterrorism investigation, expires June 1, and Congress is scheduled to take a week-long recess starting this weekend.
The Senate may work into the weekend to pass an extension to Section 215. If it fails to act in time, the NSA phone records program would be shut down before midnight on Sunday, May 31, according to the Department of Justice. Congress could still renew the program after it returns from its Memorial Day recess in early June.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, pushed for a two-month extension of Section 215 with no new limits on bulk telephone records collection. Several other senators called on him to allow a vote on the USA Freedom Act, an alternative bill that aims to end that practice by the NSA, while allowing it to continue collecting some records in a more targeted manner.
The House of Representatives, in a lopsided vote, passed the USA Freedom Act earlier this month, even though some digital rights groups blasted it as "fake reform" that would allow the agency to continue to collect U.S. records without court-ordered warrants.
McConnell's resistance to the USA Freedom Act is a "dangerous game," Berin Szoka, president of conservative think tank TechFreedom, said by email. "If Section 215 sunsets, creating a gap in U.S. intelligence capabilities, then the majority leader will have no one to blame but himself. Section 215 may have legitimate targeted uses, but neither the House nor the American people will accept its renewal without ending bulk collection."
But supporters of the USA Freedom Act can give no guarantees that it will protect the U.S. from terrorism as effectively as the current NSA records collection program does, McConnell said Friday.
The USA Freedom Act would leave telephone records in the hands of carriers, instead of the NSA, and the bill doesn't require the carriers to retain the records, McConnell noted. In some domestic counterterrorism cases, "time is of the essence," he said. "The untried, and as of yet, nonexistent bulk collection program envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe. At worse, it might not work at all."
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