Now that a US federal court has ruled that the NSA's mass wiretapping program exceeded its legal authority, leaders of the US Republican party are pushing to make it legal.
Within hours of the ruling by the US Second Circuit Court of Appeal that the NSA's bulk domestic surveillance program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act may be illegal, Republican Senate majority leader Mitchell McConnell (R-KY) argued on the Senate floor that the practice should be written into US law.
"If our intelligence community cannot connect the dots of the information, we cannot stop this determined enemy from launching attacks," he argued, according to a report by The Hill.
Section 215 is due to expire on June 1 unless Congress acts to reauthorize it. McConnell already has legislation in the pipeline to do just that. But other lawmakers want to use the opportunity to reform the rules and rein in some of the NSA's activities, with many supporting the USA Freedom Act.
McConnell said the USA Freedom Act would put American lives at risk by putting a wall between the NSA and the data it needs. If it became law, telecommunications companies would only hand over their customers' data when the NSA explicitly asks for it – a policy McConnell decried as allowing "untrained corporate employees" to handle the information.
Richard Burr (R-NC), the current head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concurred. Burr argues that Section 215 is vital to stopping another 9/11-style attack and that its surveillance provisions are less intrusive than a supermarket membership card.
"The NSA doesn't sell data, your grocery store does," he said. "But I don't hear anyone complaining about the grocery store's discount card, because you get a discount."
Also joining the discussion was Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL), who expressed his support for the Patriot Act and again invoked the spectre of terrorism to illustrate why it is needed.
"One day, I hope that I'm wrong, but one day there will be an attack that's successful," he said. "The first question out of everyone's mouth is going to be, why didn't we know about it? And the answer better not be because this Congress failed to reauthorize a program that might have helped us know about it."
Rubio's position contrasts sharply with that of another presidential candidate from his party, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Immediately after the court ruling, Rand Paul took to Facebook to praise the court's judgment and call for reform of the Patriot Act.
"This is a victory for individual liberty and the 4th Amendment of our Constitution. But the Washington machine is not going to just sit back and take it," he said.
"The surveillance statists are coming with their crosshairs on their most powerful opponent – our movement to take our country back! I'm ready to fight tooth-and-nail to stop this assault on the Bill of Rights and prevent a blanket reauthorization of the so-called 'PATRIOT Act'."
It's now a straight fight in Congress over which way the law will go, and time is running out. Although the deadline to reauthorize the Patriot Act is June 1, the Senate goes into recess on May 22, leaving barely two weeks for the two sides to broker a deal.
Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Register that the USA Freedom Act has faults, but that it's the best bill on the table with a realistic chance of passing in the next two weeks. He said the House of Representatives is due to vote on it next week. After that, it's up to the Senate.
McConnell has considerable power in the upper chamber, however, and could hold up the rival legislation. One possibility, Geiger suggested, would be to pass a short term reauthorization bill until the Senate comes back in session.
But the Republican Party overall is rather split these days on the Patriot Act. Libertarians and Tea Party types hate it as an example of out-of-control Big Government. Meanwhile, the hawks see it as essential, and the old warhorse Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was trotted out on Fox News to decry the court's decision.
"It's pretty clear that 9/11 could have been prevented if we had known about some of the communications that were linked to those who committed the terrible atrocity of 9/11," he said. "People seem to have forgotten 9/11." ®