WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has co-sponsored a bill to extend the controversial surveillance allowed under the Patriot Act — and fellow Republican and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made a point Wednesday of opposing what he sees as a threat to civil liberties.
McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., the bill’s co-sponsor, find themselves squarely on the side of advocates of the National Security Agency’s continued ability to collect millions of Americans’ phone records each day in the hunt for clues of terrorist activity. Their bill would allow the NSA to continue its surveillance into 2020.
Paul, who launched his presidential campaign this month, said Wednesday that even though some members of the Republican Party support the NSA program, “our Founding Fathers would be mortified.”
Paul was speaking at an awards ceremony hosted by the Constitution Project, a Washington think tank. He has promised to enact an executive order to end such “unconstitutional surveillance” programs on his first day in office should he win the presidency.
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In response to the Herald-Leader during the 2014 Senate campaign, McConnell indicated his support for the Patriot Act but added that “it’s imperative to periodically review such programs to ensure civil liberties are protected. All citizens should have a healthy concern about the potential for government to abuse its power; a renewed commitment to rigorous oversight is vital.”
The NSA surveillance program was revealed publicly almost two years ago by a former agency contractor, Edward Snowden. The disclosure touched off a global debate over the proper scope of surveillance by U.S. spy agencies and led President Obama to call for an end to the NSA’s collection of the records.
In filing the bill Tuesday night, McConnell and Burr used a Senate rule that enabled them to bypass the traditional committee vetting process and take the bill straight to the floor. No date has been set for consideration.
The move provoked a swift response from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who has been working with other panel members on legislation to end the government’s mass collection of phone and other records for national security purposes.
“Despite overwhelming consensus that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act must end, Senate Republican leaders are proposing to extend that authority without change,” he said in a statement. “This tone-deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed. I will oppose any reauthorization of Section 215 that does not contain meaningful reforms.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee has been working with Leahy and his colleagues to craft a new version of the Freedom Act, legislation to end bulk record collection that failed to pass the Senate last year. The current Section 215 authority expires June 1.
It is far from certain that supporters of a “clean” reauthorization have the votes to prevail. Some veteran Hill aides say such a prospect is highly unlikely — especially in the House — given the number of libertarians who have been highly critical of government surveillance powers.
Under the program, the NSA gathers from U.S. phone companies phone data, including numbers dialed, call times and dates, but not the content. Following the outcry over the program, the Obama administration added some additional protections such as requiring a judge to approve each phone number before the agency can run a search on it in its database.
However, there are gaps in the information that privacy advocates say prevent the public from being able to fully judge the program’s effectiveness, including the extent to which Section 215 has been construed to allow for other types of bulk collection.
“If the government is asking for the renewal of this authority, the public has a right to know at least in general terms how the authority is being used, and right now the public doesn’t have that,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.