Rand Paul has successfully forced an expiration of key provisions of the so-called “PATRIOT Act” which grants the federal government broad spying and data collection powers, including the power to spy on innocent American citizens. Paul’s particular objection was to Section 215, which allowed the National Security Agency to collect the phone records of ordinary Americans whether or not they were suspected of terrorism or any other crime. The NSA officially shut down its bulk collection of telephone meta-data at 7:44 pm Sunday night, anticipating the Midnight expiration of the Act.
Two other major are provisions are also affected by the expiration of the law. The government can no longer obtain “roving wiretaps” where a single warrant can be used to track a suspect using multiple communications devices. Law enforcement officials will now need a court order for each individual device. Additionally, the government loses its “lone wolf” powers to use counterterrorism tools against single individuals who cannot be connected to an organized group, although the government has never used this power.
Many Senators wanted to take up the House-passed USA Freedom Act (also ironically named) which would have kept the latter two provisions completely intact while making some modifications to the collection of telephone data. Under the act, telecommunication companies would be required to keep meta-data for 5 years and the government would have to request access to specific records. Unlike normal law enforcement proceedings, however, the government would only require a warrant from the FISA Court. Critics contend that the FISA court is essentially just a rubber-stamp for NSA decisions designed to give them an air of legitimacy. The ultra-secretive court hears only the government’s side of a case and has previously approved the general warrants that the government had been using to spy on all Americans all of the time.
Rand Paul used parliamentary procedure to block a vote on the extension of the PATRIOT Act and to prevent the Senate from quickly passing the USA Freedom Act. The most dramatic moment was when Paul spoke for ten and a half hours on the Senate floor, lecturing the body about the 4th Amendment and the Founders’ fear of general warrants. His actions come on the heels of a federal court decision that the NSA data collection violated the constitution and a report from the Inspector General in which the FBI admitted that the program had not prevented any major terrorist attacks.
Such facts cast doubt on the fearmongers’ claims that America will be “less safe” if the NSA cannot spy on everyone all of the time. What is the government to do in the aftermath of the PATRIOT Act expiration? Why is it so difficult for the government to obtain a warrant if and when they suspect someone of terrorism-related crimes? Perhaps, as Rand Paul has suggested, we could try the constitution for a while.