Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr has a plan to stave off a lapse in the NSA's collection of bulk data, but he hasn't talked to the White House or Democrats yet about whether it would have their support.
On Friday, Burr will release what he called a "win-win solution on FISA." Burr's plan would provide the NSA with a two-year transition period. That would give the National Security Agency time to convert its current program into a stage where telecommunications companies would be responsible for data. At the end of those two years, Burr says the program "would automatically transition from bulk storage to telecom storage." In that case, the NSA would have to contact telecom companies on a case by case basis.
"It brings certainty on housing the data. It allows what we think we need, which is 24 months so that we can still maintain the national security function of searching those databases and ensures Congress that they're fully informed of NSA's progress one year out," Burr said.
Burr conceded that he is "making an assumption" that Democrats and the White House will go along with his plan to ensure that Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the provision the NSA has been using to justify its bulk data collection—does not elapse without some kind of backup plan.
"I haven't talked to anybody," Burr said.
But passing Burr's plan will require more time. The Senate still plans to bring up Friday the USA Freedom Act, which would end bulk data collection and transfer storage of the data to the telecommunications companies during a 180-day period. Republican leaders expect it to fail, but the White House has been working to shore up the votes. Administration officials met with a group of bipartisan senators Thursday in the Situation Room and Sen. Mike Lee, the sponsor of the bill, said support was growing. The Senate will then move to a two-month clean extension of the Patriot Act, which also is expected to go down.
That is why the senator said he hopes Republican and Democratic leaders can lay out an even shorter-term extension before the Senate leave for the recess. That extension could range anywhere from five days to four weeks, Burr said.
If the Congress opts for a longer extension, Burr said he would prefer to work the bill through his intelligence committee and then bring it to the floor of the Senate with amendments. With a shorter term extension, the bill would need to quickly be put on the floor.
"I think it is going to be open for normal Senate process," Burr said. "We are not going to shortcut this in anyway, but that will be conditional upon how much time the two leaders can agree to for an extension."
Burr said he cannot predict how the House of Representatives will proceed. House members left town Thursday afternoon.
Republicans have been concerned about the current 180-day transition timeline in the USA Freedom Act. But in a letter dated May 20 from the NSA, officials from the agency assured both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid that with "cooperation" from telecom companies that timeline was "achievable."
Clarification: This story has been updated to specify the period of time NSA has to transfer its program to telecom companies under the USA Freedom Act.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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