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Obama Steps Up Pressure for Renewal of Surveillance Measures

by Cindy Saine May 29, 2015

President Barack Obama is stepping up pressure on the U.S. Senate, which appears set for a political showdown Sunday when it meets only hours before some key surveillance powers of the National Security Agency are set to expire.

Before both chambers of Congress left for a one-week recess, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act. That compromise legislation would end bulk collection of Americans' phone records but let the NSA search the records held by phone companies on a case-by-case basis.

Obama strongly urged the Senate to act quickly Sunday to pass the House bill before three provisions of the USA Patriot Act, enacted in 2001, expire. The president said Friday that he met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the White House to discuss a number of issues, including the NSA measures.

The president said he needed to remind everyone that at midnight Sunday, a range of authorities that the U.S. intelligence community uses to track terrorists would expire.

He said he had indicated to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he expected the Senate to act quickly to pass the USA Freedom Act. Obama said there are Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both the House and the Senate who think the compromise bill is the way to go. He said the only thing in the way is a handful of senators who are resisting reform.

The president said 'heaven forbid' a terrorist attack occur that could have been prevented if these programs were in place.

Battle expected Sunday

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is insisting on an extension of current Patriot Act surveillance programs, including the collection of Americans' phone records, despite strong bipartisan support in the Senate for the House-passed USA Freedom Act.

The Senate was unable to pass an extension in a late-night session before the recess, leading McConnell to call his members back for a rare Sunday meeting ahead of the deadline.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is running for president, is opposed to both an extension of the current law and the House bill, and he spent more than 10 hours on the Senate floor calling for the provisions to expire. Paul was joined in his efforts to thwart the extension by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Paul has threatened to again take to the Senate floor to prevent action to renew the surveillance powers.

The NSA has been collecting phone records under a section of the Patriot Act that grants the U.S. government broad powers to probe and thwart terrorist plots. A federal appeals court recently ruled the bulk phone data collection program illegal.

Unless Congress acts by midnight Sunday, the National Security Agency would have to at least temporarily shut down its phone records program, a "lone wolf" tracking provision that has never been used, and a roaming wiretap program. Analysts say it is unclear whether the Senate will be able to reach a compromise to keep the programs from expiring.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that there was no reason for Congress to take valuable tools away from intelligence agencies at a time of heightened terrorist threats from the self-declared Islamic State and other groups. He said that U.S. national security was at stake and that there was "no plan B" for intelligence agencies if the provisions expired.

Pendulum swing?

The debate over whether to renew some of the NSA surveillance powers is cutting across the usual political divides between Democrats and Republicans, creating rare alliances.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with the Tea Party Patriots conservative group to call for the Senate to let the provisions expire, saying the government had overreached with its data collection and had violated Americans' right to privacy.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said this is the first time in 13 years that Congress has had a robust debate on the trade-off between national security concerns and respect for Americans' civil liberties. Romero said after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government overreacted by passing the sweeping surveillance powers in the USA Patriot Act. He said the pendulum now is swinging back.

Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin said her organization and the ACLU — often on opposite sides of the political spectrum — are joining together to stand up against the Washington establishment, and that Congress should listen to their concerns. Martin and Romero both said that even if some of the provisions expire, the U.S. government still has plenty of surveillance tools at its disposal to protect Americans from terrorists.

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