As Spying Foes Look to 'Sunset' Patriot Act, White House Turns up the Pressure

With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the month and congressional in-fighting over the legality of government surveillance continuing to rage, the National Security Agency (NSA) will reportedly begin “winding down” bulk surveillance operations this weekend.

“After May 22, 2015, the National Security Agency will need to begin taking steps to wind down the bulk telephone metadata program in anticipation of a possible sunset in order to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection or use of the metadata,” stated a Justice Department memo circulated on Wednesday.

The particular provisions set to expire are Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s (FISA) “lone wolf” and “roving wiretap” programs, which enabled the collection of bulk metadata.

The memo states that without action this week there will be a lapse in surveillance which, as The Hill notes, “significantly increases the pressure on the Senate to act before lawmakers leave for their Memorial Day recess.” 

“NSA will attempt to ensure that any shutdown of the program occurs as close in time as possible to the expiration of the authority, assuming the program has not been reauthorized in some form prior to the scheduled sunset” on June 1, the memo continues.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced fast-track legislation that would extend without changes the full spying authorities of the Patriot Act until July 31 of this year. This follows the House passage last week of the USA Freedom Act, which is billed as a reform measure but critics note it would expand other surveillance mechanisms and renews the controversial Section 215. Both measures are expected to come to a vote in the Senate before the end of this week.

Meanwhile, rights advocates and anti-surveillance groups say they are happy to watch the sun go down on some of the U.S. government’s most egregious spying programs. On Thursday, activists in 50 cities are planning to hold “Sunset Vigils,” calling on their lawmakers to allow the Patriot Act provisions to expire, without renewal via either short-term fix or the USA Freedom Act.