FBI chief: Letting Patriot Act expire would be a 'big problem'

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Letting key portions of the Patriot Act expire at the end of the month would make it harder for the FBI to do its job, bureau Director James Comey warned on Wednesday.

Most of the debate about the three expiring provisions has focused on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial and warrantless collection of millions of Americans’ phone “metadata,” but the FBI says it's also important to talk about the security aspect.

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“These three are going to go away June 1 and I don’t want them to get lost in the conversation about metadata,” Comey said at a Georgetown University conference on cybersecurity.

For instance, Section 215 of the Patriot Act — which the NSA has relied on to operate its bulk phone records collection program — also allows the FBI to collect a variety of records from hotels, rental car companies and libraries during the course of an investigation.

“If we lose that authority — which I don’t think is controversial with folks — that is a big problem,” Comey said. “Because we will find ourselves in circumstances where we can’t use a grand jury subpoena and we can't use a national security letter,” he added, referring to two other means of collecting information.

Another provision set to expire at the end of the month would allow the FBI to target lone wolves (who don't appear to be connected to al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

The final provision is designed to track suspected terrorists who use and then ditch multiple telephones. That “roving wiretap” provision merely gives intelligence agencies the same kind of powers that police have used in criminal cases since the 1980s, Comey said.

“That is not a controversial thing," he said.

The probability that those three provisions could run out, however, seems to be higher amid a standoff in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has opened the door to a vote this week on legislation that would extend the provisions but end the NSA’s bulk phone data collection, which sailed through the House last week.

McConnell is hoping for the bill to fail, however, which would pave the way for a short-term extension of the law while lawmakers figure out a backup plan.