Trouble for Patriot Act backup plans

Trouble for Patriot Act backup plans
© Greg Nash

Dozens of advocacy groups and business coalitions are making clear they have strong opposition to a pair of backup plans to renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.  

Draft versions of the plans from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post Trump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Trump withdraws Ratcliffe as Intelligence pick MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrailer shows first look at Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein Trump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death MORE (D-Calif.) “are unviable, ineffective, and do not offer a path forward,” 51 groups said in a joint letter on Thursday, days before the legal measures are set to run out at midnight on Sunday. 

“Both bills contain flaws and omissions that are incompatible with the goal of stopping domestic bulk collection,” they added.

Burr’s bill, called the FISA Improvements Act, would give the National Security Agency (NSA) two years to give up its bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, while also expanding the FBI’s ability to get communication records and making permanent the three expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It would also allow the Justice Department to force phone companies to keep their records for years, so they could be handed over to the government when needed. 

Feinstein’s bill would also allow the government to force phone companies to retain the records.

Both bills require the NSA to use a “specific selection term” to search private companies’ records. However, those terms are defined “so broadly as to raise serious concern as to whether they would significantly curtail the government’s ability to collect large amounts of information of individuals with no nexus to terrorism,” groups wrote on Thursday.

Among the signers of the letter were the Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks and Gun Owners of America.

Critics of the NSA have previously opposed the plans from Burr and Feinstein, which the lawmakers have tried to paint as “compromise” measures. Instead, many civil liberties groups have rallied behind the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA’s bulk phone records program as well as other data collection schemes and add new transparency measures.

Thursday’s letter is the latest signal that lawmakers are going to have a very tough time pushing anything other than the USA Freedom Act.  

After senators came three votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle on the bill last weekend, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scheduled a rare Sunday evening session to try and avert the midnight deadline. McConnell has opposed the USA Freedom Act and instead attempted to pass a temporary “clean” reauthorization of current law, to allow Congress to rally behind something like Burr’s plan.