Updated 7:17 p.m. | A senior administration official warned Congress would be playing "national security Russian roulette" if they fail to pass a Patriot Act extension by Sunday night.
Several senior administration officials said the various expiring surveillance authorities have proven useful in terrorist investigations far beyond the bulk telephone metadata program that has garnered the most controversy. Even a short lapse in the authorities — which appears all but certain unless Sen. Rand Paul has a change of heart — would cause the programs to enter legal limbo.
The bulk telephone program is scheduled to start the process of going offline at 4 p.m. Sunday, and a senior administration official with knowledge of the program said it could be restarted by 8 p.m. without a lapse in data collection — if Congress acted by then.
It would take "a full day" to revive the program if Congress acted after the deadline, the official said.
But unless all 100 senators agree to hold an up-or-down vote on the USA Freedom Act on Sunday — the only bill that has passed the House extending the authorities — Senate rules would require days to go through the process of bringing up and passing a bill, even if it had the 60 votes needed to eventually overcome a filibuster.
Any changes — or even a straight extension — would then have to go back to the House before heading to President Barack Obama's desk.
Paul, the Kentucky Republican who blocked even a one-day extension early Saturday morning, has demanded votes on his amendments, and has sent out multiple fundraising emails for his presidential campaign vowing to fight to kill the program Sunday. In his latest one Wednesday, he called out members of what he calls the "Eye Roll Caucus " in the Senate, a reference to an epic eye roll Saturday morning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is preparing his own presidential bid.
Paul has focused on the NSA's bulk data collection exposed by Edward Snowden, but the administration officials noted that several other authorities that aren't as controversial would lapse as well.
About 200 times a year the government obtains Section 215 orders that allow the collection of business and other records of individuals through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and less than 100 times a year the government obtains roving wiretap orders targeting people who use "burner" phones rendering the typical wiretap warrant process useless.
Those authorities have been tremendously useful in investigations and there is no easy way to replace them, the officials maintained. The bulk telephone metadata program also has provided data that helps fill in the gaps on suspected terrorist networks, even though the administration has not contended that it has foiled any plots.
While the bulk data program would be turned off, it would effectively be dormant. The massive hard drives would not be wiped, waiting on Congress — or the courts — to act. Courts have already ruled against the program, although those cases are still working their way through the appeals process.
The administration, meanwhile, hopes the courts will approve the continued use of roving wiretaps and other Patriot Act data in existing investigations, but acknowledged there is legal uncertainty there as well.
That official complained that thousands of national security professionals are having to focus their attention of what Congress might or might not do up against a deadline years in the making rather than focusing on the terrorist threats they see every day.
The USA Freedom Act, which sailed through the House with 338 votes, was filibustered in the Senate , although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could reconsider the vote. Even if he does so, that bill would still likely require days on the floor without unanimous consent to hold a final vote.
The bill is backed by a diverse coalition including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah and Democrats like Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, but is opposed by McConnell, who fears it would not be as effective in preventing terrorist attacks.
It would transition from the bulk metadata program to one expediting access to private data held by the telecom companies over a six-month period.
A third authority, the lone wolf provision, has never been used, but is intended to target people not necessarily affiliated with a known terrorist group.
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