If at first you don’t succeed, try again at 1 am Tuesday?
Eight days after blocking it, Senate Republicans have agreed to begin debate on a House bill that would overhaul the National Security Agency’s handling of American calling records while preserving other domestic surveillance provisions.
But that remarkable turnabout didn’t happen soon enough to prevent the laws governing the programs from expiring at midnight Sunday as Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a presidential contender, stood in the way of extending the program, angering his GOP colleagues and frustrating intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Now, the question is whether the Senate will pass a bill the House can live with. If so, the surveillance programs will resume, with some significant changes in how the phone records are handled. If not, they will remain dormant.
The Senate vote on the measure known as the USA Freedom Act can come no earlier than 1 a.m., Tuesday. Senate Republican aides said they expected some amendments, but no major revisions to the bill.
It got testy on the floor as the debate proceeded. John McCain and Dan Coats, two supporters of the Patriot Act and the House reform bill as its substitute, locked Rand Paul out of one debate cycle by eating up all of the GOP time allotted. When Paul tried to get five minutes from the Democrats’ debate time, McCain blocked that too, and suggested that Paul spend some time brushing up on parliamentary procedure:
Later, Paul tried to redirect the anger:
“I’m not going to take it anymore,” he said, referring to the NSA program. “I don’t think the American people are going to take it anymore.”
Paul has been caught in a battle with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over how to proceed on the Patriot Act.
But Paul on Sunday blamed President Obama, not McConnell, saying “let’s be very clear why we’re here. President Obama set this program up.”
Well, not exactly. The Section 215 programs started under George W. Bush. In fact, Congress had to pass specific laws providing telecoms with immunity for cooperating with it when activists tried shutting the Patriot Act down with a blizzard of lawsuits.
The expiration of the programs puts a dent in law enforcement and counter-terrorism efforts, but anything missed in a short lapse probably can be recovered. If the Senate produces a form of the USA Freedom Act this week and the House can pass it as well, the authorization for those programs that survive will come in time to cover the gap. If this stretches out for a few more weeks, that becomes more and more questionable.
The problem with this is that the impasse throws out the baby with the bathwater. It’s one thing to block the Section 215 operations; even the agencies running them can’t explicitly show any Section 215 success stories, at least not on their own. The Section 702 operations are another matter, but they’re also controversial and prone to abuse. And of course, James Clapper lied to Congress about how the intelligence community used both — and he’s still the Director of National Intelligence.
Clearly, these laws need reform. But just as clearly, people forget the problems that existed prior to 9/11 that ended up creating the need for the Patriot Act, too. Flawed as it might have been, and abused as it may have been later, the law addressed real gaps and barriers in intelligence operations that led to poor communication and roadblocks for legitimate counterterrorism operations. It needs to get reformed, but we don’t need to go back to status quo ante.
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