Negotiations Said to Stall on Renewing U.S. NSA Spying Authority

With less than five days before expiration of three key provisions of the Patriot Act, negotiations among lawmakers to renew U.S. government surveillance authorities have stalled, according to technology industry officials and lobbyists tracking the legislation.

A coalition of Internet companies and technology trade associations is lobbying senators to back a measure, previously approved by the House, extending the programs before the law expires on June 1.

The legislation fell three votes shy of advancing before the Senate left for a week-long break. The coalition is counting on getting three to seven Republicans to relent and vote for it when lawmakers return for an unusual Sunday session, according to the officials and lobbyists, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

The White House has intensified its pressure on the Senate to pass the House legislation, called the USA Freedom Act, warning that failing to renew the authorities will put the U.S. at risk for terror attacks.

“We feel strongly this is something the Senate should take up very quickly and pass,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, adding that President Barack Obama has expressed the need for a “sense of urgency” on the issue.

Senate Amendments

The path to Senate passage isn’t clear. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have to allow votes on amendments from fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul. Paul, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, staged a 10 1/2 hour speech on the Senate floor last week in protest of renewal.

He may seek amendments designed to prohibit the government from collecting records in bulk and prevent constitutional violations in other spy programs. His spokeswoman, Jillian Lane, declined to comment.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, also may seek changes. Burr’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Watkins, said he “continues to work with his colleagues on the Section 215 renewal of the Patriot Act.”

Section 215, approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is used to collect bulk telephone metadata records in support of counterterrorism investigations. It also allows federal investigators to seize targeted phone, hotel and banking records of suspected terrorists and spies separate from the bulk data program.

The two other provisions set to expire provide authority to use roving wiretaps and tools to search for so-called lone-wolf terrorists not connected to an organization.

Limiting Data

Administration officials told reporters Wednesday at the White House that anything but passage of the House legislation would lead to unnecessary risk, particularly as the U.S. faces an increasing threat from the Islamic State.

Without the authorities provided by the law, federal investigators would be limited in the type of data they could collect about suspected terrorists, according to the officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Lawmakers need to act before 8 p.m. on Sunday to prevent any disruption to the program, they said.

They warned that allowing the authority to lapse even for a short period could have a profound impact. Intelligence agencies would need at least a day to get their monitoring equipment back online after a shutdown -- and that could happen only after a court re-approved the surveillance programs, the officials said.

Infrequent Use

The officials said the authorities are used infrequently. Law enforcement officers relied on them to request access individual business, bank, and hotel records fewer than 200 times per year. Fewer than 100 roving wiretaps are issued against suspected terrorists annually, and the federal government has never used the “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to begin a national security wiretap even without demonstrating a clear link to an existing terrorist group, they said.

The USA Freedom Act would alter the Patriot Act by reigning in the bulk collection program exposed by government security contractor Edward Snowden while leaving other authorities intact. That legislation is backed by the administration and passed the House 338-88 on May 13.

Some in the administration and on Capitol Hill said they hope enough senators will switch their votes and approve the House legislation ahead of the deadline. Alternatively, congressional negotiators are discussing ways to tweak the House legislation to more gradually transition the holding of bulk telephone data from the government to telecommunication companies like Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc.

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