Attorney general: Senate risking ‘serious lapse’ by stalling on NSA bill

A stalemate in the Senate is on the verge of handicapping American national security officers, Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned on Wednesday.

“Without action from the U.S. Senate, we will experience a serious lapse in our ability to protect the American people,” she said during a press conference at the Justice Department.

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“I am deeply committed to ensuring that this nation protects the civil liberties of every American while also keeping our country safe and secure,” she added. “Unfortunately, some of the vital and uncontroversial tools we use to combat terrorism and crime are scheduled to shut down on Sunday.”

In addition to the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to collect various business records and has been used by the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect millions of Americans’ phone records, other expiring provisions allow the government to target suspected “lone wolf” terrorists and trace disposable “burner” cellphones.

The ability to tap the phones of people who routinely burn through multiple devices is something Lynch has routinely seen “in every investigation I have ever done as  a prosecutor, be it criminal or national security,” she said.

“We now have the ability to go to the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court and obtain an order with probable cause to track a terrorist who does that,” she added. “That provision will expire.”

In advance of that end-of-the-month deadline, the Obama administration has ramped up the pressure for the Senate to pass a reform bill called the USA Freedom Act. That bill — passed by the House, 338-88, earlier this month — would renew three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act while also ending the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has rallied Republicans to oppose that bill, fearing it would limit the NSA from tracking suspected terrorists. But any other option seems nearly impossible, given the strong vote from the House and the few days remaining until the legal provisions expire. 

After a slugfest that lasted into the early hours of last Saturday morning, McConnell has called senators back to Washington for a rare Sunday afternoon session, mere hours before the Patriot Act provisions expire. 

Lynch made her comments Wednesday unprompted at the top of a press conference announcing action against FIFA officials for corruption, and a day after President Obama made a similar call from the Oval Office for senators to find a solution.