The Patriot Act is set to expire at 12:01 Monday morning unless the Senate votes to extend it, a week after they failed to reach a deal that would allow the law’s anti-terror protections to remain in place.
President Obama and his national security advisers warn that losing the Patriot Act—which has come under fire from those who have privacy and civil liberties concerns—could weaken the government’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks. “I don’t want us to be in a situation where for a certain period of time those authorities go away,” Obama said Friday in the Oval Office. “And heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity but we didn’t do so simply because of inaction in the Senate.”
That’s why he’s pushing Senators to pass the USA Freedom Act, a compromise bill that would extend some aspects of the Patriot Act while ending the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records in bulk. Under that reform bill, telecommunications companies would store customer’s metadata in bulk, but the NSA would need specific warrants to get someone’s data. The House passed the USA Freedom Act by a wide margin earlier this month, but some Senators are arguing that the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect American freedom and privacy.
Senator Rand Paul told Politico Saturday that he would refuse to allow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to expedite debate on the bill. “Tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program,” he said.
If the Patriot Act expires and the USA Freedom Act is not passed in its place, the government would lose three tools in the fight against terrorism, according to CNN. The NSA would not longer be allowed to collect metadata on Americans and store that data for five years, as they’re currently allowed to do under Section 215, and law enforcement couldn’t get roving warrants to track all of a terror suspect’s devices—they’d have to get individual warrants for each device. And the U.S. would no longer be legally allowed to use national security powers against “lone wolf” terrorists (i.e., not part of a known terror network), a power the government says it has never used. If the USA Freedom Act is passed, those last two powers would stay intact—only the metadata collection would be affected.
Even if the Patriot Act expires, the government could continue using Section 215 provisions in ongoing investigations of terror suspects—they just couldn’t use them in any new investigations. The NSA has been winding down its metadata collection program this week, and is scheduled to sever all connections with phone companies by Sunday afternoon.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday that if a deal is not reached, the U.S. could face a “serious lapse” in national security.