Senate Blocks Patriot Act Provisions Extension After Overnight Session, Momentarily Halting NSA Telephone Data Collection
Members of the U.S. Senate blocked three key provisions of the Patriot Act on Saturday after an unusual overnight session. The sections in question would have allowed for continued NSA bulk collection of citizens' telephone data, an issue that has been hotly debated in recent years. The charge was led by none other than 2016 candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R), who has taken a firm stance against what he refers to as a "surveillance state".
"Will be seeing everyone overnight it seems," Tweeted Paul during the late night session. "My filibuster continues to end NSA illegal spying."
Paul was not alone: the questionable intelligence practices have come under heavy fire by congressional Democrats as well, many of whom see the extensions of the Patriot Act provisions as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Currently, the NSA holds the ability to collect the phone records of scores of private citizens under the guise of a single warrant and may archive the phone conversations and call data of those citizens for as long as they deem necessary. One of the three provisions halted in the Senate on Saturday would also have transferred the responsibility of holding that data from the government to telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T, where it could be retrieved later.
With Section 215 set to expire on June 1, some in Washington have called out Paul's pseudo-filibuster as reckless behavior in a time of heightened security.
"We need to act responsibly on behalf of the American people," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the floor this weekend. "This is a high-threat period," he added. "We know what's going on overseas [and] we know what's been tried here at home: my colleagues, do we really want this law to expire?"
Both Paul and congressional Democrats alike have argued that the current Patriot Act provisions are simply ineffective at catching terrorist activity, despite the sweeping capabilities granted to the intelligence collection agency. But a few on the left grew tired of Paul's "grandstanding" on Saturday, with some complaining that the extended session had spilled over into the Memorial Day weekend.
"He's not filibustering, but using Senate rules to grandstand," Tweeted Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill early on Saturday morning, as a small group of Paul supporters wearing #StandWithRand gathered in the otherwise empty visitors gallery. "Frustrating for those who actually want to reform [the] NSA."
Two additional provisions in the Patriot Act have also been temporarily halted, one which would grant the agency the continued ability to track individual suspected terrorists, such as ISIS "lone wolves", who are not affiliated directly with any major terrorist operation. The other provision would allow the NSA to continue roving wiretaps, giving them unprecedented access to a suspected individual's metadata without having to actually request a new warrant if they change handsets.
"Let's be clear what happened here," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who supported the passage of the provisions, in a statement on Saturday. "We tried with a [bipartisan] majority to protect this country and the Republicans objected."
The Republicans in question numbered relatively few, with only a dozen or so conservative senators voting along with their concerned Democratic counterparts. On Saturday, McConnell hinted that he would bring the vote to table once more on Sunday.
"We'll be back on Sunday, May 31, one more opportunity to act responsibly to not allow this program to expire," said McConnell on the Senate floor early on Saturday. "But we’d better get ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from the danger by the total expiration of the program."
The battle between individual privacy and security oversight has been a long one. In June 2013, that fight ramped up once more after former NSA intelligence officer Edward Snowden leaked classified information regarding government data collection, revealing a massive network of data scraping called PRISM which pulled and stored vast quantities of internet and related telecommunications information of private citizens.
Whatever you think about Rand Paul or his politics, it's important to remember that when he took the floor to say 'No' to any length of reauthorization of the Patriot Act, he was speaking for the majority of Americans–more than 60% of whom want to see this kind of mass surveillance reformed or ended.
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