- - Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has made it clear to his colleagues that he wants the USA Patriot Act, including the controversial parts of the legislation scheduled to expire at the end of June, fully extended. He’s seems ready to do whatever he can to get his way.

The USA Patriot Act was enacted in the days following Sept. 11, when the nation trembled on the verge of panic, with little debate and little opposition in Congress. The Patriot Act has been recognized since on both left and right as unfortunate legislation that granted too much power to the government to snoop into the lives, calls and emails of everyone in the name of national security.

Mr. McConnell thought he could force the Senate to either let the law lapse, to panic everyone again, or get an extension without modification until the year 2020. Even as Mr. McConnell praised the National Security Agency’s reliance on the act to justify the collection of telephonic “metadata” from millions of Americans, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was writing the decision, released Thursday, declaring the government program, first revealed by Edward Snowden, illegal because the language of the act cannot be read to justify such sweeping government action.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and joined by groups, including the National Rifle Association, and welcomed by civil libertarians across the land. To continue the program, the Obama administration would presumably have to persuade Congress to adopt language specifically authorizing the NSA to collect and hold such data. That attempt might be forthcoming.

The court’s decision gives a boost to the advocates for the USA Freedom Act, which would modify the Patriot Act. The Freedom Act is expected to pass in the House and Mr. McConnell’s strategy to kill it in the Senate may not work now, given the appeals court’s decision.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, read the 97-page opinion and said, “Congress should take up and pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, which would ban bulk collection under Section 215 and enact other meaningful surveillance reforms.”

The opinion of the liberal senator from Vermont is shared by the conservative Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, an author of the Patriot Act who has since regretted its excess. He joined the ACLU lawsuit as “a friend of the court,” and said Thursday that “it’s time for Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act in order to protect both civil liberties and national security with legally authorized surveillance.”

When the chips are down, blind partisanship, with genuine cooperation, can still be put aside.

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