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With a Deadline Looming, the Fate of the PATRIOT Act Is in Limbo

More than 13 years after George W. Bush signed the bill into law after the September 11 attacks, the May 31 deadline is looming for the controversial act as legislators head out of town for the holiday weekend.
Photo by Reuters

As its May 31 expiration date looms and a vote to extend its provisions has yet to be scheduled, the USA PATRIOT Act may be on its last legs — but Senator Mitch McConnell is now claiming the Senate will not adjourn for the Memorial Day recess until their work is finished.

With the holiday recess lasting though the end of the month, the White House has already warned legislators that today is the realistic deadline for extending the act — not the expiration date on May 31. Congress members have already began funneling out of the capital for the holiday weekend, while McConnell is preparing to call a rare weekend session in the Senate on Saturday to vote on either reforming or implementing a short-term extension of the controversial Act as is.


The USA PATRIOT Act — which is a backronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" — was quickly crafted and signed in the weeks after the attacks on September 11, 2001 in order to broaden the ways the US government could collect intelligence to halt future terror attacks.

"Surveillance of communications is another essential tool to pursue and stop terrorists," then-president George W. Bush said when signing the bill into law more than 13 years ago. "The existing law was written in the era of rotary telephones. This new law that I sign today will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including emails, the internet, and cell phones."

Related: A New Standoff Has Emerged as the Future of Patriot Act Is in Flux

In the ensuing decade, however, information began to leak about how the government and its intelligence agencies were using the act, and in particular, one controversial element known as Provision 215, to collect in bulk the phone records of ordinary Americans.

Now, Provision 215 and other key portions of the Act are scheduled to sunset when the expiration date sets in on May 31, allowing lawmakers the chance to end the program altogether, reform it, or reauthorize it completely based on the past 14 years of evidence about how successful it has been.

Other privileges on the line if the Act ends include certain surveillance permissions for the FBI over wiretapping abilities and access to library records, according to Politico.


FBI Director James Comey warned this week that losing the provisions of 215 that allows his teams to collect records will make the bureau's job more difficult.

"If we lose that authority — which I don't think is controversial with folks — that is a big problem," he said. "Because we will find ourselves in circumstances where we can't use a grand jury subpoena and we can't use a national security letter."

While McConnell and his other GOP backers would like to secure a short-term extension to the bill, the USA Freedom Act passed by Congress — with an impressive 338-88 vote — appears to have bipartisan support. The Freedom Act would terminate blanket phone record gathering, also ending the practice of pooling the records in a government database.

Meanwhile, if McConnell can't pull through with a vote to extend the bill, the National Security Agency would lose its abilities to perform sweeping phone record collections — although it would still be allowed to access information already retrieved. A total of 60 votes are needed to end the currently ongoing debate over the bill, with a 60-majority vote also needed to pass an extensions or reauthorization.

Both the Obama administration and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have said they support ending the bulk collection of phone data, and a review group said the program had limited results preventing terrorism during its tenure. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have said they want to see the Act end altogether, and oppose McConnell's reauthorization act.

A "fast track" trade bill and highway trust fund extension are also on deck for the weekend session as the only other remaining pieces of legislation in the lead up to the holiday recess.

Related: Official Reports on the Damage Caused by Edward Snowden's Leaks Are Totally Redacted

Additional reporting by Colleen Curry.