Key provisions of the Patriot Act expired at midnight Sunday, including the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Now, the Senate is scrambling to pass legislation to reform the expired program.
In addition to the bulk collection program, two other Patriot Act provisions sunset last night -- one allowing for the close monitoring of so-called "lone wolf" terror suspects and another giving law enforcement officials the authority to use roving wiretaps on terror suspects that are using multiple phones.
The Senate has now turned to considering the USA Freedom Act, legislation intended to reform the NSA's domestic surveillance program. The measure passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 338-88 last month.
The USA Freedom Act will completely end the government's bulk collection of metadata and would require telephone companies to retain the data. The government would need to obtain an approval from the FISA court in order to access the database. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies.
Any records provided to the government would be limited to so-called "two hops," meaning intelligence officials can access the records of people who received or placed calls to suspected terrorists, even if they're not suspected terrorists themselves. The current program allows officials to access information "three hops" removed from terror suspects.
The USA Freedom Act aims to strengthen civil liberties protections, creating a dedicated panel of privacy and civil liberties experts at the FISA courts. It also extends the "lone wolf" and roving wiretaps provisions, which expired last night, until the end of December 2019.
The Senate cleared its first procedural hurdle on the USA Freedom Act with a vote of 77 to 17 on Sunday night. Senators initially blocked movement on the bill last week, but senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed the measure, reversed course, calling it the only option available.
"It's not ideal," McConnell said Sunday. "It's now the only realistic way forward."
The Senate is expected to pass the USA Freedom Act later this week, but there could be amendments to the measure, meaning it would return to the House to be reconsidered.
One potential amendment that may be included is a provision requiring a certification process to ensure the telephone companies have the ability to query data at the request of the government.