Senators stall vote to extend NSA phone records dragnet

NSA
Credit: gruntzooki via Flickr

U.S. Senator Rand Paul spoke on the chamber's floor for more than nine hours Wednesday, during a filibuster to prevent lawmakers from voting on a bill to extend portions of the law used by the National Security Agency to collect telephone and business records from the country's residents.

Paul, a Kentucky Republican, continued to talk on the Senate floor at 10:25 p.m. EST, after taking control of the chamber earlier in the day. Nine other senators joined him for short stretches throughout the day, including Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.

Time is running out for the Senate to extend the section of the Patriot Act that the NSA uses as authorization to collect telephone and other business records. Section 215 of the Patriot Act expires at the end of the month, and lawmakers are scheduled to take an extended Memorial Day break next week.

Paul called on Senate leaders to allow debate and amendments to any bill to extend the Patriot Act provisions, including the USA Freedom Act, a bill passed in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, apparently refused to give in to Paul's demands as the filibuster continued into the night.

The USA Freedom Act is aimed at ending the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, while allowing the agency to continue collecting U.S. data in a more targeted manner. Paul and other critics of the USA Freedom Act say it would still allow the NSA to collect some U.S. records without court-ordered warrants.

The senators joining the filibuster have criticized the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone records, with the agency citing authorization from the Patriot Act for the past nine years. Section 215 of the law allows the NSA to collect any domestic telephone and business records that U.S. officials find relevant to an ongoing antiterrorism investigation, and the past two presidential administrations have used that language to collect nearly all U.S. telephone records.

Senate leaders had planned to push for a vote Wednesday on a bill to extend the Patriot Act's business and phone records provisions beyond June 1, but Paul's filibuster prevented that from happening.

Paul called for a robust Senate debate on whether to extend Section 215 before a vote. During the week, the Senate has been debating a fast-track trade bill, but Paul objected to a quick vote on extending the Patriot Act. "Shouldn't we get together and say, 'Let's have a debate; let's devote a week to this?'" Paul said.

The NSA's bulk collection of telephone records violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the country's residents against unreasonable searches and seizures, Paul said. Government agencies should seek court-ordered warrants targeting specific terrorism suspects, he added.

"I see no reason you can't have security and the Constitution at the same time," he said. "There's no reason why we can't catch terrorists like we catch other bad people in our society, by using the Constitution."

The NSA is collecting the records of "hundreds of millions of Americans, and I think it ought to stop," Paul added.

The Senate has just two days to extend the telephone records section of the Patriot Act before that portion of the antiterrorism law expires. U.S. lawmakers are scheduled to leave Washington, D.C., on Friday for a week-long break, and without action, the telephone records program would come to a halt at 11:59:59 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, according to a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday afternoon on a fast-track trade bill. Paul potentially could control the Senate floor until then. Paul took the Senate floor at 1:18 p.m. EST Wednesday and spoke for about two hours and 25 minutes before Wyden joined him on the floor.

Although the House passed the USA Freedom Act earlier in the month, Senate Leader McConnell has pushed for a straight renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act with no new limits on NSA records collection.

McConnell on Tuesday said the Senate has an obligation to vote on the Patriot Act before the Memorial Day break, by either voting on the USA Freedom Act or an alternative.

"It's my view that letting it expire is not a responsible thing to do," McConnell said on Tuesday. "What I think is the most important thing is to make sure we still have a program, a program that works, and helps protect the American people from attacks. That's the bottom line here."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Patriot Act doesn't authorize the bulk collection of U.S. phone records. Paul called on President Barack Obama to kill the NSA records collection program in light of the court decision. It "boggles the mind" that Obama has continued the NSA program after the court ruling and earlier findings from two government privacy panels saying the collection violates U.S. residents' privacy, Paul said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of digital rights groups called for nationwide sunset vigils at 7 p.m. Thursday to oppose an extension of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Participating groups include Demand Progress, Fight for the Future and Free Press. The vigil in Washington will be on the west lawn of the Capitol Building.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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