The Patriot Act’s strange divide

On June 1, the NSA will lose legal authority to collect bulk phone records, as key provisions of the Patriot Act expire. The House has passed a new bill replacing bulk collection with more targeted searches. But some senators, including the majority leader, want to extend the Patriot Act, leaving lawmakers scrambling before the holiday. Judy Woodruff talks to Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post.

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    We now turn to the heated debate over government security and individual privacy.

    Three key provisions of the Patriot Act that allow for government surveillance are set to expire soon, but the U.S. Senate is planning to be out of Washington next week, leaving lawmakers scrambling to find agreement on this controversial issue.

    Senators came to work this morning confronting an impasse on surveillance and a looming deadline.

    SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: Unfortunately, the clock's been run out.


    On June 1, the National Security Agency loses legal authority to collect bulk phone records, as key provisions of the Patriot Act expire. But the Senate is leaving for the Memorial Day recess and won't return until June 1, leaving Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to point across the Capitol.


    The House worked very hard on this. They completed their work and they left. They're not coming back until after the surveillance authorities are set to expire. And the House leadership has made clear they will not pass an extension, even if they're in.

  • MAN:

    On this vote, the yeas are 338 and the nays are 88. The bill is passed.


    The bill that passed the House is USA Freedom Act. It replaces bulk collection of phone records with case-by-case searches. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is firmly opposed to that measure.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    The untried and as of yet nonexistent bulk collection system envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe. At worst, it might not work at all.


    McConnell favors a two-month extension of the Patriot Act to buy time for a compromise. Another proposal calls for a shorter extension. Other Republicans strongly disagree.

    Kentucky's Rand Paul held the floor for 11 hours Wednesday.

    SEN. RAND PAUL (R), Kentucky: I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged.


    Many Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, are also dug in against keeping the Patriot Act alive.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader:

    There's efforts made to extend a program that's already been declared by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States, already declared is illegal. How can we extend an illegal act?


    This afternoon, Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairing the Intelligence Committee, offered yet another option, extend the Patriot Act, but end bulk data collection after two years.

    In the meantime, the Justice Department has announced the NSA will have to start winding down phone surveillance this weekend to meet the June 1 deadline.

    For more about this, I am joined by Mike DeBonis, who is a national security reporter for The Washington Post.

    Mike, welcome again to the NewsHour.

    You know, it's unusual to see not only both houses divided, but one party so divided on this. Why is this so controversial?

  • MIKE DEBONIS, The Washington Post:

    Thanks, Judy.

    You're right. It's very odd to have Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner so far apart on these things. You really have a very basic philosophical difference of opinion, where Leader McConnell believes that the reform bill that was passed by the House last week simply doesn't do enough to preserve the nation's counterterrorism capabilities. And Speaker Boehner says, you know, this is the right balance, it strikes the right balance, this is what was negotiated with the administration, with the intelligence community, with civil libertarians of both parties and with folks on the various national security committees, and this is what the Senate should pass.

    And they have now left town, and whatever the Senate does from this point, if it's anything other than pass that House bill, there's the very real possibility that the authority for the surveillance program could expire.


    And just to be clear again, it's not the entire Patriot Act. It's just one particular part of it that has them so divided.


    That's right.

    And this is the authority that has underpinned this bulk surveillance, this bulk collection of phone records, which is awfully controversial, but it also contains language that establishes other surveillance authorities, including, in particular, the so-called roving wiretap, which is used against criminal suspects who use multiple phones and routinely change up the way that they communicate.

    And the FBI director, James Comey, said this week that that also is a very crucial piece of their investigative toolbox that they don't want to lose.


    Now, we know, Mike, there was this court order that was handed down a few days ago that had to do with all this. What effect has that had on the debate that's going on?


    It really hasn't had a particularly — it hasn't moved — changed a lot of minds. It hasn't moved a lot of opinions.

    People — it has caused people on both sides to sort of dig in a little deeper into where they were previously. There is, however, a practical concern, which is that the court that struck down the bulk surveillance program based on this statutory argument said, well, we're not going to do anything right now because Congress is in the middle of deciding this within a matter of days, and Congress will decide this, and we can stay out of it.

    Well, if this can gets kicked down the road, whether it's a week or two months, the court could come back and say, well, we have no clarity here, we still believe that this program is illegal, and will issue an injunction to stop it. That is certainly a possibility, and that's something that, you know, not — that is not being really discussed particularly openly right now, but it's something that is being pointed out by the administration.


    Well, at this point, it's not looking as if it's going to get resolved quickly. As we reported, Justice Department is saying it needs to start winding down this bulk collection of data as early as this weekend. What are the practical effects of that?


    Well, you have — you likely have right now — the Justice Department has warrants that they have secured against various — in various investigations that have to be renewed on a regular basis.

    And, basically, what the Justice Department has said is, is that if we don't know that this authority is going to be there on June 1, we can't go to a judge and get a warrant that is going to extend past that. We can't go now, starting today, tomorrow, next week, and tell a judge, we want a warrant, whether it's for the bulk phone collection, whether it's for these roving wiretaps, for the other surveillance authorities in this section. They can't go to a judge and say, please extent this warrant.

    So the effect, what they're saying, is, if nothing happens today, then you really do start seeing practical effects for the lack of action from Congress.


    And meaning — meaning, in other words, that the surveillance will start to change.

    Well, we're going to certainly follow this as it goes on tonight, and I know you will. Mike DeBonis, thank you.


    Thank you.

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