Senate leader introduces bill to extend Patriot Act surveillance

The new legislation would extend the telephone records collection section of the law for five years

The majority leader of the U.S. Senate has introduced a bill that would extend the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act until 2020, instead of expiring on June 1.

The bill, introduced by Senator Mitch McConnell Tuesday night, would extend section 215 of the Patriot Act, the controversial part of the law that the U.S. National Security Agency has used to collect U.S. telephone records in bulk. Many digital and civil rights groups have protested the NSA phone records collection program, saying it violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting the country's residents against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The bill, if passed, would kill efforts in Congress to rein in the NSA's telephone records collection program. In addition to phone records, Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the NSA or FBI to collect business records and "any tangible things" when the agencies have "reasonable grounds" to believe those records are relevant to an antiterrorism investigation.

A spokesman for McConnell didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comments on the bill.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is reportedly pushing for the bill to be fast-tracked straight to the Senate floor, without any hearings or votes in Senate committees.

Supporters of section 215 have long argued it's necessary to help U.S. agencies track down terrorists. The program was revealed in leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"Section 215 contains a number of safeguards that protect civil liberties, beginning with its narrow scope," the Office of Director of National Intelligence says in its defense of the law.  "It can only be used to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.  It cannot be used to investigate ordinary crimes, or even domestic terrorism."

The bill generated swift opposition from several digital rights groups. The bill represents an "unacceptable" maintenance of the status quo on NSA surveillance, said Berin Szoka, president of free market think tank TechFreedom. The expiration of parts of the Patriot Act in June should be a "wake-up call" for Congress to better balance national security and privacy, he said by email.

"Simply reauthorizing Section 215 means no oversight, no transparency, no court reforms, and no protections against bulk collection," Szoka added. "We cannot afford to have Congress rubber-stamp the Patriot Act ... without significant reforms."

Earlier this month, a coalition of digital rights and other groups launched a campaign to kill or significantly amend section 215. The Fight 215 campaign encourages U.S. residents to contact their lawmakers and ask them to oppose renewal of the surveillance provision.

The coalition includes more than 30 groups, representing both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. In about two weeks, more than 4,000 visitors to the Fight215.org have placed calls to lawmakers, and about 6,000 have posted information on social networks, said TechFreedom, a member of the coalition.

Coalition members would be happy with Congress killing section 215, but also with an amended provision if it protects privacy, said Holmes Wilson, co-director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group that's part of the coalition. "We'd consider either a victory, depending on the content of the amendment," he said by email.

With an amendment that would have ended the NSA phone records program narrowly failing in the House of Representatives in mid-2013, coalition members are optimistic their efforts will prevail in Congress this year, Wilson said.

"There's a solid chance of a left/right alliance standing up to stop suspicionless mass surveillance," he said. "The near success of the [NSA] amendment in 2013 shows a path forward."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Mitch McConnellU.S. SenateBerin SzokaU.S. National Security AgencylegislationgovernmentU.S. Office of Director of National IntelligenceFight for the FutureprivacyHolmes WilsonsecurityEdward SnowdenTechFreedom

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