President Obama has told the US Senate to get its act together over the spy-friendly Patriot Act, key provisions of which are due to expire at midnight on Sunday.
The three provisions that will lapse include Section 215, which the NSA uses as legal cover for its blanket slurping of citizens' mobile phone records, and which a US court has found illegal.
The US House of Representatives, meanwhile, has passed the USA Freedom Act, which would reauthorize the Patriot Act provisions with some changes, but an attempt in the Senate to do the same failed last week.
"I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done," Obama said in a press conference on Tuesday.
"Keep in mind that the most controversial provision in there, which had to do with the gathering of telephone exchanges in a single government database – that has been reformed in the USA Freedom Act. But you have a whole range of authorities that are also embodied in the Patriot Act that are non-controversial, that everybody agrees are necessary to keep us safe and secure."
The USA Freedom Act, as it stands, would still allow law enforcement to access American's mobile phone metadata, but it won't be able to hoard it. That job will be palmed off to the phone companies, who will respond to lawful requests to access it on a case-by-case basis.
Where is this mind-job going?
When the Senate debated the legislation last week, it failed to pass by just three votes; the Senate remains sharply split down the middle over it. Presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) held an 11-hour filibuster against any renewal of the Patriot Act provisions.
There are a number of options for the Senate when it reconvenes at 4pm on Sunday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a big fan of the Patriot Act, has introduced a bill that would simply reauthorize the existing provisions, but it has virtually no chance of passing.
The USA Freedom Act is the best shot at avoiding key sections of the Patriot Act lapsing, but only if it passes unaltered. A serious alteration would mean the House would have to reconfirm the legislation, which couldn’t be done before Monday.
The other alternative, one favored by many Democratic and Republican senators, is to just let the provisions lapse. Law enforcement is understandably not keen on this (although civil liberties groups have pointed out that they already have considerable legal avenues at their beck and call). Neither is Obama.
"I would urge folks to just work through whatever issues can still exist, make sure we don't have, on midnight Sunday night, this task still undone, because it's necessary to keep the American people safe and secure," he opined. ®