The U.S. Senate, in an unusual Sunday session, has started debating whether to extend its authorization of the country's vast national security surveillance operation, or let it lapse at midnight as the current law expires.
Lawmakers gathered in Washington just hours after the U.S. intelligence chief warned that global terrorists are looking to take advantage of any halt in the spying effort.
Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, in an appearance on CBS's Face the Nation, urged the Senate to approve new authorization for the surveillance. That would continue to give the clandestine National Security Agency access to the records of millions of phone calls made by Americans and suspected terrorists, to possibly help in thwarting attacks on the U.S.
Brennan said "terrorist elements have watched very carefully what has happened here in the United States. Whether or not it’s disclosures of classified information, or whether it’s changes in the law and policies, they’re looking for the seams to operate within. This is something that we can’t afford to deal with right now, because if you look at the horrific terrorist attacks and violence that’s being perpetrated around the globe, we need to keep our country safe.”
"Unfortunately, I think that there’s been a little bit too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have rally skewed the debate. These tools are important to American lives,” Brennan added.
Time is running out
In a statement Sunday, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, urged the Senate to pass the bill, and do so "expeditiously."
It is unclear whether the Senate will act in time to prevent even a temporary halt in the NSA's collection of telephone data, the numbers called, and their date and duration, but not the content. The spy agency currently keeps the telephone data itself, but the House of Representatives has approved reforms that would end the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, while allowing the agency to search the records held by phone companies on a case-by-case basis.
One critic of the monitoring, Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, says he will use legislative rules allowing him to at least temporarily block efforts to expedite debate on extending the current law or vote on the reforms, forcing an end to the surveillance authorization at midnight.
Paul, at odds with most Republican and many Democratic lawmakers over the surveillance, contends that the current Patriot Act invades Americans' privacy rights with the collection of the phone data.
Obama urges Senate to approve USA Freedom Act
President Barack Obama is strongly urging the Senate to approve the House-passed USA Freedom Act, which he said was being blocked by "a handful of senators."
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"I don't want us to be in a situation in which, for a certain period of time, those authorities go away and suddenly we're dark," Obama said. "And, heaven forbid we've got a problem where we could have prevented a terrorist attack or apprehended someone who was engaged in dangerous activity but we didn't do so simply because of inaction in the Senate."
Obama said Friday that he told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he expected the Senate to act quickly Sunday. But if Paul succeeds in blocking Senate action, it could be several days before the issue is resolved.
McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, is insisting on an extension of current Patriot Act surveillance programs, including the collection of Americans’ phone records, despite strong bipartisan support in the Senate for the House-passed reform bill.
No agreement before recess
The Senate was unable to pass an extension in a late-night session before its weeklong Memorial Day recess, leading McConnell to call his members back for a Sunday meeting ahead of the deadline.
Paul spent more than 10 hours on the Senate floor calling for the provisions to expire and was joined in his efforts to thwart the extension by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The NSA has been collecting phone records under a section of the Patriot Act that grants the U.S. government broad investigative powers to try to thwart terrorist plots. A federal appeals court recently ruled the bulk phone collections program illegal.
If Congress fails to act by midnight Sunday, the NSA will have to at least temporarily shut down its phone records program, a “lone wolf” tracking provision that has never been used, and a roaming wiretap program. Analysts say it is unclear whether the Senate will be able to reach a compromise to keep the programs from expiring.
The debate over whether to renew some of the NSA surveillance powers is cutting across the usual political divides between Democrats and Republicans, creating rare alliances.
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union joined with the Tea Party Patriots conservative group to call for the Senate to let the provisions expire, saying the government had overreached with its data collection and had violated Americans’ right to privacy.
VOA's Cindy Saine contributed to this report from Capitol Hill.
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