Administration

Obama officials say Senate playing ‘Russian roulette’ with Patriot Act

The Obama administration is making increasingly dire warnings about what will happen if the Senate fails to renew the Patriot Act on Sunday. 
 
Senior administration officials said even a brief lapse of surveillance authorities would cause the programs to enter uncharted legal waters. 
 
“Whether it’s a period of hours or days, what you’re doing essentially is playing national security Russian roulette,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.
 
{mosads}The White House is ratcheting up pressure on the Senate to renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act after senators failed to reach an agreement last weekend. 
 
Critics of the bulk data collection program, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have said they violate Americans’ civil liberties and have not helped to catch any suspected terrorists.
 
Administration officials do not argue the program is solely responsible for arrests or stopping plots, but say it’s been a valuable tool to investigators to identify potential terrorist plots and networks.
 
Administration officials said the only way to prevent a lapse is for the Senate to pass the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which would extend important surveillance authorities while reforming the bulk data collection program. 
 
The phone records program will begin shutting down at 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to an administration official. If Congress acted to reauthorize the program before 8 p.m. Sunday, it could resume operations without disruption. 
 
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called a rare Sunday session to hold votes on a Patriot Act extension. It’s not yet clear what type of extension will be considered.
 
The USA Freedom Act fell three votes short of the 60 it needed to overcome a procedural hurdle early Saturday morning. McConnell opposed the USA Freedom Act out of concern it could diminish the government’s national security capabilities. But Paul blocked McConnell from advancing a short-term extension of the bill without any changes. 
 
Administration officials pointed out that other crucial surveillance authorities are set to expire Sunday, not just the bulk data collection program, which has garnered the most publicity. 
 
The provision that authorized the phone-records program, Section 215, has been used by law enforcement almost 200 times per year to collect bank and business records from suspected terrorists and spies, according to an official. 
 
Investigators would also lose the ability to use roving wiretaps on suspects who use multiple cellphones, as well as authorize enhanced surveillance of “lone wolf” threats. 
 
The roving wiretap authority is used less frequently than Section 215 and the lone-wolf provision has never been used, an official said. 
 
An administration official said the government may be forced to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to continue using those authorities on existing cases. But the government could not use these surveillance powers in new investigations. 
 
It’s not clear whether the court would grant the administration’s request. 
 
“We’ve not had to confront this legal limbo,” said one administration official.
 
“Any lapse is going to entail unnecessary risk,” another official said. “There is going to be some risk if there is a lapse in these authorities.”  
Tags Mitch McConnell Rand Paul

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