The National Security Agency (NSA) logo is shown on a computer screen inside the Threat Operations Center at the NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland, January 25,...
Jason Reed/Reuters

Key Patriot Act provisions expire … for now

Updated
There was some rare Sunday-night drama on the Senate floor, and as msnbc’s M. Alex Johnson reported over night, at least for now, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has the outcome he wanted.
The National Security Agency’s authority to collect troves of bulk telephone metadata under the post-Sept. 11 USA Patriot Act expired at midnight Monday after Republican senators were unable to make a deal.
 
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought a two-week extension Sunday of two less controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, but that effort was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul, his fellow Kentucky Republican who is running for president partly on his strong objections to the surveillance programs.
This admittedly gets a little messy. There’s a bipartisan House bill – the so-called “U.S.A. Freedom Act” – which Senate Republicans blocked last week, largely because McConnell had an alternative plan that would have simply extended the status quo.
 
But McConnell’s strategy failed miserably. By the time Senate Republican decided the House bill wasn’t so bad after all, there wasn’t time to pass it before last night’s deadline – at least not without Rand Paul’s cooperation, which he wasn’t prepared to offer.
 
It’s worth clarifying a couple of things. For example, Paul said he was targeting surveillance programs started by President Obama, which is plainly untrue – at issue are measures put in place by the Bush/Cheney administration, and supported for years by Paul’s party. The Kentucky Republican also suggested over the weekend that the entirety of the Patriot Act was on the line, and that’s not quite right, either.
 
At issue, rather, are three important provisions within the broader law: (1) Section 215, which has served as the basis for the NSA metadata program; (2) a “lone wolf” provision related to surveillance of terrorist suspects unaffiliated with a larger group; and (3) roving wiretaps.
 
Perhaps the most important question, however, is what happens now.
 
At midnight, the relevant provisions of the law expired, but in the coming days, the Senate is expected to pass – whether Rand Paul likes it or not – the House-backed legislation, which would restore much of what’s lapsed. Remember, the USA Freedom Act reforms the controversial NSA program, but doesn’t eliminate it entirely.
 
In other words, Paul didn’t kill these provisions altogether, so much as he derailed them temporarily, exploiting Mitch McConnell’s sloppy legislative strategy.
 
As for the politics, Senate Republicans have never been overly fond of Rand Paul, but his strategy yesterday seems to have pushed some of them over the edge.
 
And by all appearances, the Kentucky senator couldn’t be more pleased. At one point last night, Paul went so far as to say some of his critics “want there to be a great attack so they can blame me.”
 
That’s a pretty bold accusation. A senator and presidential candidate seemed to suggest his rivals – including his ostensible allies in his own party – are actually hoping for a deadly attack in order to spite Rand Paul.
 
If Paul’s procedural moves weren’t enough to put some distance between him and his colleagues, comments like these burn the bridge behind him.

And what of the national-security implications? Some of the recent demagoguery has made it sound as if last night’s developments have put us all in grave danger, but let’s take a deep breath. Over at Vox, Timothy B. Lee explained overnight, “[A]t worst, Sunday’ expiration of the Patriot Act provisions will mean that government lawyers are forced to fill out extra paperwork in order to spy on suspected terrorists. Reasonable people can disagree about whether this extra paperwork creates an unnecessary burden or whether it brings much-needed judicial oversight to government spying. But either way, it’s not an emergency.”

And since the law is likely to change again in a few days, we’re talking about some temporary extra paperwork. This isn’t to say the debate is irrelevant, only that some of the panic-filled rhetoric is almost certainly misplaced.
 

Mitch McConnell, NSA, Rand Paul and Surveillance

Key Patriot Act provisions expire ... for now

Updated