The White House ramped up its campaign to persuade the Senate to renew National Security Agency surveillance powers before they expire at midnight Sunday, likening a potential lapse to playing “Russian roulette” with national security.
The Senate last weekend rejected a House-passed bill that would renew Patriot Act provisions while modifying a controversial phone record collection program and is now on a break until Sunday, just hours before the spying powers are scheduled to expire.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged the Senate to take up the bill and senior administration officials warned reporters Wednesday that any lapse in the program risks courting “unnecessary risk.” The warnings came as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul vowed to keep working to block the Patriot Act and the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
But administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said failure to pass the bill would interrupt not only bulk collection of data, but other key provisions used to track terrorists and spies, including a provision that lets the government use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations.
“There is not an authority that would allow a wiretap for each new phone ... there’s not a fail safe,” one senior administration official said, adding, “You’re playing national security Russian roulette .... and we urge Congress not to play that game with these uncontroversial authorities.”
Also in limbo would be a “lone wolf” provision meant for spying on targets not directly connected to terrorist cells. Although the provision has never been used, a senior administration official said “it’s not a tool we want to see go away.”
The Justice Department has said it will start winding down the phone record collection program on Friday unless there is action to renew it. Administration officials said that even if legislation is eventually passed that beyond the “flipping of switches,” they would be required to go back before court to restart the program.
Paul is using his opposition to the bulk collection program revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as a major platform of his presidential campaign, which emailed a fund raising plea even as the administration officials were talking.
“He believes the Fourth Amendment means what it says,” the email said of Paul. “He believes you have a right to privacy and no government bureaucrat or president can take that away from you!”