Among the key Patriot Act provisions that are set to expire by the end of the month is article 215, the one authorizing the NSA’s bulk collection of "metadata" of Americans’ phone calls. However, a Justice Department memo that was circulated around congressional offices on Wednesday said the NSA will begin winding down the controversial program on Friday, ten days ahead of its set expiration date.
"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." the memo said.
It goes on to state that the winding down is necessary "to ensure that any shutdown of the program occurs as close as possible to the expiration of the authority, assuming the program has not been reauthorized in some form prior to the scheduled sunset," which is set for June 1.
The move is expected to place significant pressure on lawmakers to act before Monday’s Memorial Day recess, especially as Congressional Republicans remain deeply divided over the fate of the federal government’s highly controversial bulk metadata collection program.
Last week, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act – a bill that would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records – by a vote of 338 to 88. However, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, who favors a long-term extension of the program, suggested on Tuesday that the bill would not gain the required 60 votes to pass the Senate after announcing his plan to allow a vote on the legislation this week.
McConnell has cited national security concerns in his opposition to the Freedom Act and, instead of ending the surveillance program, he has proposed a short-term extension of its authorization under the Patriot Act.
"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," he said."That’s the bottom line here. And we’re going to work toward addressing that this week, and we’ll see how it turns out."
McConnell’s opposition has put him at odds with several lawmakers who note that the bill has won widespread approval from across the political and ideological spectrum, including a majority of House Republicans. Several Senate Republicans, however, hold similar concerns to McConnell, raising doubts over whether the bill would pass the Senate if it is put to a vote this week.
The Justice Department memo will likely pressure Republican lawmakers to reconcile their differences over the expiring provision so as to avoid any operational interruptions to the NSA’s program.
The memo’s Friday deadline also coincides with another deadline for the Obama administration: to request a renewal of the program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Federal Court oversees the controversial program and authorizes it in 90 day intervals.