NSA will begin winding down spying program this weekend

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Key parts of the Patriot Act are not set to expire until the end of the month, but the National Security Agency (NSA) will begin winding down a controversial program run under that law this week, according to the Justice Department.

“[A]fter May 22, 2015, it will become increasingly difficult for the government to avoid a lapse in the current NSA program of at least some duration,” the Justice Department said in a memo circulated to congressional offices Wednesday.

Patriot Act provisions that the NSA uses to justify its controversial bulk collection of metadata about U.S. phone calls are among those slated to expire at month's end.

But after Friday, “the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program," the Justice Department said in its memo. That action is necessary "to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata."

"NSA will attempt to ensure that any shutdown of the program occurs as close in time as possible to the expiration of the authority, assuming the program has not been reauthorized in some form prior to the scheduled sunset” on June 1, the Justice Department added.

Additionally, Friday is the last day for the Obama administration to request a renewal of the current program from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the NSA's actions and weighs in every three months.

The Wednesday memo significantly increases the pressure on the Senate to act before lawmakers leave for their Memorial Day recess.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments Coffman’s stance on climate change disingenuous, irresponsible Bill Murray honored with Mark Twain Prize MORE (R-Ky.) will allow a vote this week on House-passed legislation to renew the Patriot Act provisions and end the NSA’s phone records program, that doesn’t appear likely until later in the week. It’s unclear whether that bill, called the USA Freedom Act, will pass the Senate, potentially setting up a battle between the two chambers over whether to extend the Patriot Act provisions for a short period of time.

The prospect that the Senate can't agree on a bill or that the House won't follow through with a short-term reauthorization of the law by the end of the week increases the odds that the NSA program ends, at least temporarily.

The memo from the Justice Department was first reported by National Journal.