As the U.S. Senate cliffhanger over reauthorization of spy programs continued, Attorney General Loretta Lynch weighed in, saying intelligence agencies risk losing key anti-terror tools.
Lynch joined the White House in an 11th-hour push to urge the Senate to pass a House-backed measure to extend many of the post-Sept. 11 surveillance programs but prohibit the National Security Agency from collecting bulk records on Americans.
“Our biggest fear is that we will lose important eyes on people who have made it clear that their mission is to harm American people,” Lynch told CBS News in an interview aired Friday, her first since taking charge of the Justice Department.
Some provisions of the USA Patriot Act that have been used to justify expansive and sometimes controversial surveillance programs unveiled by former government contractor Edward Snowden are set to expire the end of the month. But Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said Friday “some kind of compromise will be reached” before lawmakers recess, most likely Saturday.
McCain said in an interview with CNN that the NSA authorizations are “probably going to be extended,” although he wouldn’t say whether that would come in the form of the USA Freedom Act, which already passed the House, or a short-term extension until a compromise can be brokered.
White House officials say they don’t know if the USA Freedom Act has enough votes to pass the Senate. Members of the president’s team have been lobbying top lawmakers, including a briefing in the Situation Room on Thursday. The administration argues that the bill strikes the right balance between national security interests and protecting privacy of Americans.
Lynch said she was hopeful the government could provide “more clarity” to the American people on “exactly what we do” with collected data to assuage privacy fears.
“It’s information about telephone calls,” she said. “It’s not the content, it’s not what’s being said. It’s not the voices that are there.”
If the Senate fails to pass the bill, the future of the programs remains uncertain. Some members of the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have suggested a short-term reauthorization of the existing legislation without imposing any new restrictions on the NSA. But the House is not expected to return from their Memorial Day recess until June 1, meaning the programs could expire before the lower chamber approved a patchwork solution like the one suggested by the Kentucky Republican.
McCain predicted an agreement before recess because “we can’t shut down this entire operation.” He said an 11-hour floor speech by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, seeking to avoid reauthorizing the programs, only delayed what the chamber was going to do anyway.
“What most of us believe in is we don’t want a repetition of 9/11,” McCain said. He said the programs that were put in place could have prevented the terrorist attacks.
“It has to be explained better to the American people,” he said. “That is a job of those of us in Congress and it’s also a job for the president of the United States.”