The future of the Patriot Act became uncertain Wednesday as an effort to restrict the government’s surveillance abilities was evident from both sides of the Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the debate late Tuesday evening by pushing forward a surprise bill that would maintain the Patriot Act unchanged for five years.
Meanwhile, in the House, a plan to keep the law while also making major changes to the National Security Agency was opposed by some hawkish Republicans. Now, a new bill which its backers hope to pass through committee by the end of the week is very uncertain.
Despite a June 1 deadline to reauthorize some parts of the national security law, it’s not known if any bill can get enough votes to get through the House or Senate.
Some civil liberties militants are ready to let the Patriot Act provisions lapse, saying this result is the only way to cut the government’s huge collection of personal data.
Intelligence officials and defense experts fear curbing the spy prerogatives would hamper intelligence officials and leave them powerless to potential terrorist threats.
The divide between the two sides is deepening ahead of the June deadline, when three sections of the Patriot Act will expire, including the highly controversial Section 215 that givers the government the power to collect “any tangible things” during a terrorism investigation.
The NSA has been relying on Section 215 to gather phone records about millions of Americans, obtaining the numbers involved in a call, and also when it occurred and for how long, while not accessing the actual conversation.
Early this week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) wanted to introduce the legislation that would renew the Patriot Act provisions while stopping the phone records program in its current shape. The new bill will have a requirement that the National Security Agency obtain a court order before gathering records from private phone firms, but other changes as well.
Lawmakers said they “are still working to perfect it.” At first, bipartisan advocates of the bill had hoped for a place in the panel on Thursday. Now, the committee’s target is to unveil it “soon,” an official said, “so that it can move forward with legislation that ends the bulk collection program, strengthens protections for Americans’ civil liberties, and protects our national security.”
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