Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul said he plans to prevent the renewal of U.S. anti-terrorism programs when the Senate holds a rare Sunday session in a last-ditch effort to extend expiring surveillance rules.
“I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program,” Kentucky’s Paul said in a statement Saturday. “I am ready and willing to start the debate on how we fight terrorism without giving up our liberty.”
The confrontation Sunday would cap a week in which Paul, who like any senator can block legislation from moving forward, has attempted to stymie procedural measures to renew the programs. He asked supporters in an e-mail Friday to join him in opposing National Security Agency spying, before three surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act run out at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes a House-passed bill that is among the measures the Senate is scheduled to consider Sunday. McConnell said through a spokesman that he wants to prevent a lapse in counter-terrorism programs.
“The leader has called the Senate back prior to the expiration of the expiring provisions to make every effort to provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs to combat terror,” spokesman Don Stewart said in a statement.
President Barack Obama on Friday warned of potentially dire consequences for national security if the Senate balks at renewing the surveillance authorities.
Obama, a number of lawmakers and a coalition of companies and technology groups are urging senators to pass the proposed USA Freedom Act, which would prohibit the NSA from continuing to collect telephone records in bulk while renewing three other anti-terrorism programs.
The bill, passed by the House 338-88 on May 13, would require the NSA to get court warrants to obtain individual phone records held by telecommunication companies.
“Heaven forbid we’ve got a problem where we could’ve 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,” Obama said Friday after meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office.
Paul’s campaign against the bill has included a more than 10-hour filibuster earlier this month and campaign-trail appeals to supporters.
“We fought a revolution over this,” Paul told a Republican Party meeting Friday in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Paul said there was no deal on the NSA provisions that could meet civil libertarians’ demands.
“I believe we must fight terrorism, and I believe we must stand strong against our enemies. But we don’t need to give up who we are to defeat them,” Paul said on Saturday.
Other Republicans led by McConnell oppose the bill for different reasons than Paul. They’re unconvinced the government will have adequate technology to search phone records held by carriers. McConnell, with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, was seeking changes to the bill.
“I think this whole thing is ridiculous,” Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a phone interview on Friday. Nunes sponsored the House bill. “It may be a joke to some and nice fundraising gimmicks, but at the end of the day it won’t be funny if somebody gets killed,” he said.
The bill, H.R. 2048, fell three votes short of the 60 needed to advance in the Senate on May 23. McConnell, whose bill providing for a two-month extension garnered just 45 votes at that point, compared to 57 for the House-passed measure, hasn’t indicated this week what his approach will be when the Senate reconvenes.
Even if it got enough votes on Sunday, Paul could delay further action beyond the expiration of the three surveillance provisions.
Without the provisions “the intelligence community will lose important capabilities,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement. “We would lose entirely an important capability that helps us identify potential U.S. based associates of foreign terrorists.”
Those measures allow investigators to seize targeted phone, hotel and banking records of suspected terrorists and spies; use roving wiretaps; and use tools to search for lone-wolf terrorists not connected to an organization. Other NSA surveillance methods would continue unchanged.
With an expiration, the government wouldn’t be able to collect and store bulk phone records. Instead, investigators would have to get a court warrant and go to phone companies to obtain individual records.
Roving wiretaps enable investigators to track suspected terrorists who change the devices they use to communicate, without having to get a court warrant for each device. If the authority expired, the FBI maintains it would be able to continue using roving wiretaps that were already approved but couldn’t begin new ones, senior administration officials told reporters on May 27.
The authority allowing the government to track so-called lone wolf terrorists has never been used, said the officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Provisions of the USA Patriot Act used to justify expansive and sometimes divisive surveillance programs came under scrutiny in 2013, after the data-collection program was revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
It’s been well known that the provisions, which were last reauthorized by Congress in May 2011, were set to expire June 1. McConnell, Burr and other Republicans failed to come up with a bill after taking control of the Senate in January.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that McConnell had let the bill’s renewal “linger until the last minute” and should take responsibility if the provisions expire.
“If Senator McConnell cannot convince Senator Paul, his fellow Kentuckian whom he endorsed for President, to back off his filibuster threat, then Senator McConnell will have no one but himself to blame for allowing crucial national security tools to expire on his watch,” Reid’s spokesman Adam Jentleson said Saturday in an e-mailed statement.
The House returns to Washington on Monday, meaning the three programs would temporarily expire unless the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act unchanged. Nunes said the Senate on Sunday might alter the measure in an effort to get enough votes to move it forward.
“My best guess as to how they would proceed would be some type of amendment to USA Freedom that could get to 60 votes,” Nunes said. He predicted that whatever gets 60 votes in the Senate would also be passed by the House.
Nunes said lawmakers may decide to add language requiring the government to certify technology exists to get phone data held by telephone companies. If the technology didn’t exist, the timeline for ending the NSA program could be extended.
The idea would be “to say why don’t we give them two years to make that happen and insist on some kind of certification that it’s really working before we get rid of the program,” said Stewart Baker, former NSA general counsel and now a partner at the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
Another possible amendment could be requiring phone companies to retain records for a certain period of time to ensure they’re available for counter-terrorism investigations, Baker said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.