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Tea Party and ACLU Call on Congress to Let Patriot Act Expire

In the literal definition of a strange bedfellows alliance, a top Tea Party group and the American Civil Liberties Union are pressing lawmakers to allow the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize the National Security Agency's broad surveillance activities to expire.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In an extreme case of strange bedfellows, a top Tea Party group and the American Civil Liberties Union are pressing lawmakers to allow the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize the National Security Agency’s broad surveillance activities to expire.

The push by grassroots conservatives and liberal civil libertarians comes ahead of a looming Sunday, May 31, deadline. At midnight, three parts of the Patriot Act will expire, including Section 215, which the NSA uses to vacuum up the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.

“It’s violating our freedom and the Bill of Rights,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said during a joint conference call Friday outlining their case against the bill. “When you have Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Rand Paul and the ACLU and the Tea Party Patriots all aligning on this issue, it’s very telling.”

At the moment, top lawmakers are scrambling to broker a last-minute deal to save the law, but it’s unclear who will come out on top or what legislation will be voted on. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants Congress to renew all three provisions and has summoned senators back to Washington for a rare Sunday session.

However, a left-right coalition of lawmakers succeeded in voting down McConnell’s renewal efforts last week and are demanding an immediate overhaul of the intrusive U.S. surveillance practices made public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In May, the House passed the USA Freedom Act by a 338 to 88 vote. The law would renew the three Patriot Act provisions, including Section 215, but with one important change: The phone records would be collected by the nation’s major phone companies — not the NSA — and the intelligence agency would need court authority to access the data.

In the meantime, the NSA would maintain a lesser-known program allowing the government to use roving wiretaps to surveil people using different phones. That’s something law enforcement officers use less than 100 times a year. The other program is the so-called “lone-wolf” provision, which empowers authorities to surveil a suspected terrorist even if they haven’t been able to establish that he or she has any ties to a terrorist organization. That power has never been used, but administration officials claim it could be valuable in the future.

The reform legislation has supporters and critics from both parties. National security hawks say phone companies may be unprepared or unwilling to respond to court orders requiring them to promptly hand over phone records to the government. Civil liberties advocates say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to prevent the government from collecting information on a broad swath of Americans. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has made blocking the re-authorization of the Patriot Act provisions a key part of his presidential campaign.

The USA Freedom Act has a powerful supporter: President Barack Obama, who has warned against allowing the full array of surveillance provisions to lapse.

“This needs to get done,” President Barack Obama told reporters on Tuesday. “I would urge folks to just work through whatever issues can still exist.”

Top U.S. intelligence officials, for their part, have said they are comfortable with the bill and do not believe losing Section 215 will endanger U.S. national security. “At this late date, prompt passage of the USA Freedom Act by the Senate is the best way to minimize any possible disruption of our ability to protect the American people,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement on Friday.

Clapper said the intelligence community would lose important capabilities if Congress simply allowed all three provisions to lapse. “For new investigations, we will no longer be able to get orders allowing us to effectively track terrorists and spies who switch communications devices, and the FBI will no longer be able to obtain certain kinds of business records that are important building blocks of national security investigations,” he said.

Still, the bill faces an uncertain future. It’s opposed by McConnell on national security grounds and fell three votes short of a filibuster-proof 60 last weekend. It could pass on Sunday if McConnell drops his opposition to the legislation — one of the few solutions available to the GOP leader at this point.

On Friday, representatives of the ACLU and Tea Party Patriots made clear they believe the USA Freedom Act is an unsatisfactory piece of legislation, but would prefer its passage over a re-authorization of all three of the Patriot Act provisions.

“We don’t believe the USA Freedom Act goes far enough in the reform efforts,” said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU. “We are neutral on the bill. We think it would be better to let the USA Patriot Act expire and have a more fulsome debate happen.”

This isn’t the first time Tea Party groups and liberal organizations have banded together in Obama’s second term. The White House’s push for legislation that would fast-track a major Asia-Pacific trade pact has faced stiff opposition from unions like the AFL-CIO, who are concerned about how the deal might affect wages, and the right-wing Tea Party Nation, which is suspicious of granting the president additional authority even if it’s to conduct trade deals overseas.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images