Unless lawmakers act, three provisions of the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act - also known as the USA PATRIOT Act - will expire on March 15.
One of those provisions is Section 215, which came about following the terror attacks carried out against the US on September 11, 2001, and authorizes the NSA to obtain a nationwide collection of phone record metadata, such as timestamps and phone numbers involved in a call or text, though it does not include the contents of the conversation. In 2015, then-US President Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, which banned that bulk collection and required the government to designate a particular subject and go through a process to obtain call-detail records (CDRs).
Citing a declassified study, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that the Freedom Act program cost some $100 million from 2015 to 2019, despite the government only using it a total of two times. Furthermore, only one of the instances contributed to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.
With usage of the program lacking, lawmakers such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have little faith in Section 215 receiving reauthorization.
“That would be a tough sell if you don’t use it,” he said, as reported by The Hill.
The other two parts of the act set to expire are the “lone wolf” amendment and the “roving wiretaps” provision. According to Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), members of the intelligence community are also not in favor of continuing the program.
“I don’t believe that the experts find that call record reauthorization particularly helpful. So I could support reauthorizing the other parts … and not reauthorize that,” he said.
Though the NSA itself abandoned the program in 2019, lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) do not appear to be on board with doing away with Section 215 and believe the program should remain active in case the government desired to restart it.
“They’re still relevant to our effort to go after terrorists today. ... These tools have been overwhelmingly useful according to our intelligence advisors, and I hope that when the Senate deals with these expiring provisions in a couple of weeks we’ll be able to continue to have them in law,” the senator told reporters on Tuesday, according to The Hill.
In order for an intelligence agency to obtain CDRs of a subject, there must be an ongoing international terrorism investigation, and the agency must provide facts that establish reasonable, articulate suspicion that the CDRs are necessary for the investigation.
Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), who are respectively the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have proposed legislation that would formally end Section 215 and give the other two provisions of the act an eight-year extension.
Sputnik reported late last month that a bipartisan-backed bill had been introduced in the House of Representatives which called for reforms to Section 215. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a co-sponsor of the legislation, expressed in a news release that the proposed legislation “prevents the misuse of Section 215 by clarifying that simply calling an investigation an ‘intelligence investigation’ cannot be used to circumvent Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections.”