Politics & Policy

GOP Hawks Duel over NSA Reforms as Clock Ticks

As the Senate prepares to vote on the most controversial aspects of the Patriot Act, with traditional political coalitions scrambled by Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks, conservative foreign policy hawks are burning the phones in the dueling lobbying efforts on behalf of their preferred alternatives to a straight reauthorization of the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) sponsored the House-passed USA Freedom Act, but Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R., N.C.) unveiled an alternative just hours before the expected vote on Lee’s proposal.

“I’m telling my colleagues they have two options,” Lee tells National Review. “First option, they can let these provisions of the Patriot Act expire and then try to pass a brand new bill after we come back from recess. Or, second option, they can vote for the USA Freedom Act, allow these programs to continue, and then try and pass new reforms as they see fit.”

RELATED: Mike Lee: It’s Time to Put an End to the NSA’s Bulk Collection of Americans’ Metadata

Lee’s effort to end bulk collection of phone records has the backing of conservative hawks such as Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and even President Obama. Lee’s bill received a boost yesterday from the Heritage Foundation, which touted the measure in a rare report on NSA activities released Thursday evening. 

“There is only one path for these NSA programs to continue uninterrupted, and that is a vote for the USA Freedom Act.” — Mike Lee

“Under this new program, whenever the NSA feels it has reasonable, articulable suspicion that a phone number is associated with international terrorism, it can seek an order to access information about that number from [a court],” the report explains. “Ending the bulk collection of telephone metadata by the government, or even housing it in a private third-party entity, may encumber the ability of the intelligence community to analyze all the data in real time across a known pool of data. Such a change will inevitably slow down investigators, but as the technology changes, this should be rectified. That said, numerous intelligence community leaders have said that while it is far from ideal, they could live with such a system, understanding that America is accepting some risk by doing so.”

Lee needs 60 votes to end debate on his bill. If he can’t get them, the Senate will vote to end debate on a bill that would reauthorize the expiring Patriot Act provisions for two months, giving Burr time to draft his bill.

RELATED: NSA Data Collection: Necessary, or Unconstitutional?

“It’s clear that the USA Freedom Act doesn’t protect our national security as well as it should, so I’m providing a framework to plug the holes in the bill,” Burr said in a statement accompanying a fact sheet outlining his preferred legislation.

#related#The key difference between the two approaches is that, whereas Lee’s proposal would give the NSA just 180 days to adopt the new program, Burr’s bill would allow for a two-year transition to having the phone companies maintain the records rather than the government. 

“My legislation provides a longer transition period to ensure that the metadata collection process moves properly to the carriers without endangering our national security or our personnel overseas,” the Intelligence Committee chairman said. “It also contains a bipartisan approach which would provide the government with advance notice of a carrier’s intent to change its data-retention policies.”

To defend the effectiveness, from a national security perspective, of his bill, Lee emphasizes that it is the only proposal that has passed the House.

“There is only one path for these NSA programs to continue uninterrupted, and that is a vote for the USA Freedom Act,” he says to NR.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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