President Barack Obama on Friday urged the Senate not to let the National Security Agency’s power to collect Americans’ phone records expire, warning that U.S. intelligence agencies could be left in the dark.
Meeting in the Oval Office with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Obama said the renewal of authority is being held up by a “handful of senators” – despite approval by the House of Representatives and concern in the intelligence community.
“Heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity, but we didn’t do so simply because of inaction in the Senate,” Obama said.
The president said he’s told Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Senate leaders that “I expect them to take action and take action swiftly.”
Unless the Senate acts by Sunday at midnight, three provisions of the 9/11-inspired USA Patriot Act will expire, including the controversial Section 215, which authorizes the NSA to collect Americans’ telephone records.
Obama said a compromise has been struck to assuage privacy concerns about Section 215.
“This is not an issue where we have to choose between security and civil liberties,” he said. “This is an issue in which we, in fact, have struck the right balance and shaped a piece of legislation that everybody can support. So let’s go ahead and get it done.”
McConnell has called the Senate back early from its week-long Memorial Day recess to make a final push at a rare Sunday session to renew the Patriot Act before the authorities lapse. But standing in his way is a fellow Kentucky Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, who is pledging to block the spying powers as he makes the issue the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
“When the Senate comes back into session on (Sunday), there will be just eight hours for spy state apologists to reach a deal to keep these programs going. Eight hours!” Paul said in a fundraising email on Friday. “I’m determined to do whatever I can to stop them.”
A political action committee backing Paul launched an aggressive ad on Friday in the style of a pro wrestling promotion, bellowing, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Get ready, America, for the biggest brawl for liberty of the century!”
McConnell is in a bind. Just 45 senators, far less than the 60 needed, backed his attempt last weekend to extend the NSA spying powers. A House-passed bill, the USA Freedom Act, which would change the phone data collection program while renewing less controversial provisions in the Patriot Act, also failed to pass the Senate, but by just three votes.
McConnell opposes the USA Freedom Act, under which phone companies would keep the records instead of the government. (The NSA could access the data with a secret court order.) McConnell argued against the change on the Senate floor, declaring that it would be “slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe.”
Allowing another vote on the USA Freedom Act, though, could be McConnell’s only hope of getting something passed quickly. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Friday that McConnell “hasn’t announced” how he is going to proceed on Sunday night. He noted McConnell has called the Senate back “to make every effort to provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs to combat terror.”
Under Senate rules of unanimous consent, McConnell may not be able to hold any final votes at all on Sunday if Paul objects, pushing the issue into next week – after the NSA’s spying powers have expired.
Paul is demanding a majority vote on his amendments, including an end to the bulk phone records collection program, but Senate leaders haven’t agreed.
And Paul is showing no sign of compromise, saying that the “reason I decided to run for president was to stop all of this madness.”
He was aided by civil libertarian groups, including an online group, Fight for the Future, which enlisted more than 10,000 websites to redirect traffic from congressional offices to a page that read: “Congress: This is a blackout. We are blocking your access until you end mass surveillance laws.”
Critics, including Paul, insist the surveillance has never stopped an attack, but administration officials described them as critical tools in tracking terrorists.
The intelligence community would lose “important capabilities” for new investigations if the provisions lapse, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned Friday.
That would include a measure that allows the government to use roving wiretaps to track suspects who switch phones or locations. And Clapper said the FBI would no longer be able to obtain certain kinds of business records and would lose the so-called “lone wolf” provision in the Patriot Act, which is meant to allow surveillance of targets not directly connected to terrorist cells.
“At this late date, prompt passage of the USA Freedom Act by the Senate is the best way to minimize any possible disruption of our ability to protect the American people,” Clapper said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest mocked the Senate standoff between McConnell and Paul, suggesting it was rooted in the “long history in the commonwealth of Kentucky of pretty heated feuds going all the way back to the Hatfields and McCoys.”
He added, “Unfortunately, the victim of that feud right now is the amount of risk that’s facing our national security and legislation that would protect the privacy and civil liberties of our people.”
The White House has said it has no Plan B to replace the provisions, and the Justice Department has said it would begin winding down the program on Friday.
The House, meanwhile, is standing firm behind the USA Freedom Act. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., has proposed changes to it, but House members rejected his ideas.
Negotiations are going on between the House and the Senate on a potential deal. But the House is on vacation until Monday, and it’s difficult to see a scenario under which the NSA’s spying powers aren’t going to at least temporarily lapse at midnight Sunday.