If you’re making a phone call today, there’s a chance the NSA might not know about it.
The spy agency was forced to halt its collection of bulk telephone metadata early Monday after the Senate failed to extend three key provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act that expired at midnight. The lapse was a victory for Senator Rand Paul and activists who have campaigned against post-9/11 government surveillance programs—but it will likely only be a temporary one. While the Senate was stymied by Paul’s procedural hurdles on Sunday, it is likely to vote by mid-week on House-passed legislation that would reform the NSA’s spying powers while extending the Patriot Act for several years.
Over the past 10 days, Paul, the first-term Kentucky senator and Republican presidential candidate, succeeded in preventing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from extending authority for the surveillance program even for a few weeks while lawmakers worked out a compromise. But the expiration on Monday was as much a result of McConnell’s own missteps in running the Senate floor as it was of Paul’s insistence on using his power to hold up legislation.
Essentially, McConnell overreached. A hawk on national-security matters, McConnell believed the House measure—known as the USA Freedom Act—weakened the NSA’s authority and pushed to extend the Patriot Act without revisions. So before Memorial Day, McConnell tried to force a compromise by engineering the defeat of the Freedom Act. He succeeded, but Paul would not grant his consent for any extension of the provisions. Senators being senators, they decided to take off for their scheduled week-long recess without passing anything. McConnell called lawmakers back into session Sunday night, hoping the impending deadline would increase pressure on Paul, and secure an extension of the Patriot Act.