President Obama called for a rewrite of the Patriot Act Tuesday, including nixing his NSA’s phone-snooping program, in a new statement of administration policy urging Congress to adopt reforms that would end warrantless bulk collection powers.
The policy statement, from the White House Office of Management and Budget, puts Mr. Obama on record in favor of changes ahead of a June 1 deadline when a key part of the Patriot Act is set to expire.
Mr. Obama is backing the USA Freedom Act, which is poised for a House vote later this week, calling it a good balance.
“The bill strengthens … privacy and civil liberties protections, while preserving essential authorities our intelligence and law enforcement professionals need to protect the nation,” the administration statement said.
Mr. Obama’s backing adds heft to the USA Freedom Act, and further isolates Senate Republican leaders who are pushing for a continuation of all Patriot Act powers, including the ability for bulk collection of data without a warrant.
The chief example of that power being used is the National Security Agency’s phone-data collection program, under which the numbers, times and durations of calls made within the U.S. are gathered and stored for five years by the NSA. The information, which doesn’t include contents of the calls, is supposed to only be delved into when investigators believe a specific number is associated with terrorism.
Mr. Obama’s lawyers have defended the program as legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, even as the president has called for changes to that part of the law. Last week a federal appeals court in New York — including two judges Mr. Obama appointed to the bench — issued a decision ruling that the Patriot Act doesn’t allow for bulk collection, dealing a blow to Mr. Obama’s legal stance, but bolstering the case he and most lawmakers are making in Congress.
On the other side of the debate is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who argues the NSA program is critical for the fight against potential terrorist plots, and is trying to extend the Patriot Act as-is. If no action is taken beforeJune 1, the entire Section 215 — which is broader than just bulk collection — would expire, and Mr. McConnell is hoping to use clock pressure to force colleagues to accept his extension.