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NSA Bulk Collection On Hold As Senate Considers Bill


For the first day in more than a decade, U.S. counterterrorism officials are operating without three key provisions of the USA Patriot Act. That's because the Senate failed to renew them in time. The measures expired at midnight last night. Today, a scramble to revive the lapsed powers continued on Capitol Hill amidst questions about what it means to be left without them. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: There are many members of Congress who truly regret that the Senate was unable to pass a bill last night that would've kept the expired surveillance powers largely intact, but not everyone felt that way.


THOMAS MASSIE: Last night at midnight, a wonderful thing happened.

WELNA: That's Congressman Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican. On the House floor today, Massie praised another Kentucky Republican, Senator Rand Paul, for forcing last night's expiration of the three Patriot Act provisions.


MASSIE: And now we have some of our civil liberties restored. If only but for a brief second in history, they are restored. It may register only as an eddy current, but clearly we changed the tide last night.

WELNA: Massie's statement tacitly acknowledged the obvious - that while Congress may have let those spying powers lapse, it's bound to largely restore them this week. On the Senate floor this afternoon, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson demanded fast action from his colleagues.


BILL NELSON: I hope better hearts and minds will prevail and that we can collapse this period of dark where there is no law governing emails, phone calls, cellphones, etcetera, as we try to protect ourselves from the terrorists.

WELNA: Today, while Rand Paul solicited $5 donations for his presidential campaign by tweeting about his recalcitrance last night on the Senate floor, Kentucky's other Republican senator said the only way to revive the powers was to pass legislation already approved by the House, called the USA Freedom Act. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that measure, which also ends the government's bulk collection of Americans' phone data, first needs to be amended with a number of fixes.


MITCH MCCONNELL: These fixes are common sense, and whatever one thinks of the proposed new system, there needs to be basic assurance that it will function as its proponents say that it will.

WELNA: Joining McConnell in the push to amend the USA Freedom Act was Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr. He proposed extending to a full year the six-month transition period the House approved, under which bulk collection of phone data would continue.


RICHARD BURR: Hopefully our friends in the House will see 12 months as a good agreement between the two bodies. And that 12-month agreement, I think, would give me confidence in knowing that we've taken care of the technology needed for the telecoms to search, in real time, their numbers.

WELNA: The Senate is to vote tomorrow morning on cutting off debate on the USA Freedom Act, to be followed by consideration of McConnell's amendments. Those changes would require House approval as well. Adam Schiff is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. The Senate, he says, should simply pass that bill as is.

ADAM SCHIFF: Members in the House that opposed the USA Freedom Act, by and large, did so not because they felt the bill went too far, but rather because they didn't feel it went far enough. So anything that detracts from that is going to cost the measure votes in the House.

WELNA: Meanwhile, CIA director John Brennan warned yesterday on CBS that the expired Patriot Act provisions have helped stop attacks.


JOHN BRENNAN: The tools that the government has used over the last dozen years to keep this country safe are integral to making sure that we're able to stop terrorists in their tracks.

WELNA: But Congressman Schiff says the government still has at its disposal other surveillance powers.

SCHIFF: So what the administration, I think, will do is they will determine, in each particular case, what other authorities may be available. That may be more time-consuming to get approval, but there will be some, if imperfect, workarounds.

WELNA: And officials may need to use them for several days at least while Congress struggles to restore the expired powers. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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