As Spying Foes Look to 'Sunset' Patriot Act, White House Turns up the Pressure
Justice Department memo reveals pressure campaign as two competing spy bills head to vote
With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the month and congressional in-fighting over the legality of government surveillance continuing to rage, the National Security Agency (NSA) will reportedly begin "winding down" bulk surveillance operations this weekend.
"After May 22, 2015, the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata," stated a Justice Department memo circulated on Wednesday.
The particular provisions set to expire are Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's (FISA) "lone wolf" and "roving wiretap" programs, which enabled the collection of bulk metadata.
The memo states that without action this week there will be a lapse in surveillance which, as The Hill notes, "significantly increases the pressure on the Senate to act before lawmakers leave for their Memorial Day recess."
"NSA will attempt to ensure that any shutdown of the program occurs as close in time as possible to the expiration of the authority, assuming the program has not been reauthorized in some form prior to the scheduled sunset" on June 1, the memo continues.
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced fast-track legislation that would extend without changes the full spying authorities of the Patriot Act until July 31 of this year. This follows the House passage last week of the USA Freedom Act, which is billed as a reform measure but critics note it would expand other surveillance mechanisms and renews the controversial Section 215. Both measures are expected to come to a vote in the Senate before the end of this week.
Meanwhile, rights advocates and anti-surveillance groups say they are happy to watch the sun go down on some of the U.S. government's most egregious spying programs. On Thursday, activists in 50 cities are planning to hold "Sunset Vigils," calling on their lawmakers to allow the Patriot Act provisions to expire, without renewal via either short-term fix or the USA Freedom Act.
The actions are being organized by a coalition of groups including Demand Progress, Restore the Fourth, CREDO, MoveOn.org, Free Press, and Fight for the Future.
Government surveillance has faced opposition from both progressive groups as well as the ultra-right, for infringing on privacy rights.
On Wednesday, arch-conservative presidential candidate Rand Paul mounted a more or less symbolic filibuster against Patriot Act renewal.
"There comes to a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer," Paul said on the Senate floor. "That time is now. And I will not let the Patriot Act, the most un-patriotic of acts, go unchallenged."
Though the debate has largely centered around the Patriot Act, Wednesday's Justice Department memo makes clear that the Obama administration does not necessarily believe that the expiring provisions are the only laws that grant the government extreme surveillance authority.
The memo states that with the insertion of "relatively simple language" and by amending the dates in certain sections of the USA Patriot Improvements and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, "we believe...it would not require reenacting the lapsed provisions in their entirety."