After members of the US House of Representatives left Washington Thursday afternoon, the Senate has one more day to approve the USA Freedom Act passed by the House, or vote on a separate two-month extension of all expiring Patriot Act provisions, an option being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The House bill, which aims to curb the NSA's collection of bulk domestic phone records, is unlikely to pass the Senate, and McConnell’s two-month Patriot Act extension proposal would have to then be approved by the House, which has indicated it has no interest in doing so.
Considered to be one of the most extreme examples of the US government’s overreach, the USA PATRIOT Act (which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was signed into law by President George W. Bush one month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Ostensibly aimed at safeguarding the American people from similar attacks in the future, the legislation effectively gave the NSA the authority to form its domestic spying apparatus, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden brought to light.
"Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content," former NSA General Counsel Stu Baker said during a 2013 panel in New York City.
Section 215, now set to expire, dealt specifically with the collection of bulk telephone metadata. The telephone numbers, time stamps, and call times of millions of Americans’ private phone calls have been recorded and stored on the agency’s massive servers.
Administration officials have insisted that the loss of section 215 could severely hamper intelligence efforts. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price argued earlier this year that it would result “in the loss, going forward, of a critical national security tool that is used in a variety of additional contexts that do not involve the collection of bulk data,” according to the National Journal.
But there is little – if any – evidence to suggest that the Patriot Act’s provisions have made Americans safer. According to a report filed by the Justice Department’s inspector general on Thursday, the FBI could not find a single example of a terrorism plot being thwarted by knowledge gained through the Patriot Act.
A separate document from the President’s Review Board in 2013 also states that "the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks."
Without section 215, the NSA can still collect metadata, but will be forced to apply for a warrant from the FISA court. In that way, data collection would relate to specific individuals suspected of terrorist activity, rather than raking in the information of millions unsuspected of illegal activity.
Despite this lack of a provable success rate, many lawmakers urged for an extension of section 215, incorporating it into the language of the Freedom Act. Senator McConnell had lobbied aggressively to extend those provisions on the basis of national security.
While hardliners on the right thought the Freedom Act took away too much of the NSA’s authority, civil liberties activists have maintained that the bill didn’t go far enough.
"Are you really willing to give up your liberty for security?" Senator Paul said during a 10-hour filibuster on Wednesday.
"I will not let the Patriot Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged."