After considerable debate in a special Sunday night Senate session, Congress allowed key provisions of the Patriot Act to expire at midnight on Monday.
The expiration of Section 215, the Patriot Act provision used by the National Security Agency to justify its bulk phone records collection program, was the most significant outcome of the debate. According to CNN, the NSA officially shut down its bulk metadata collection program at 7:44 p.m. last night. The expiration also removes the government’s ability to use a roving wiretap without multiple warrants, as well as the ability track “lone wolf” terrorist suspects. The expiration of these provisions can be viewed in one of two ways: as a small but significant victory for civil liberties in America, or as a potentially catastrophic national security risk.
President Obama and other members of the federal government have sided with the latter opinion. The Obama administration had been urging the Senate to pass the House-backed USA Freedom Act, which would make reforms to the phone collection program but would leave other Patriot Act provisions in place. Resilient lawmakers like Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, however, outright oppose the Patriot Act and refused to compromise in order to send the USA Freedom Act through at the last minute. Due to that opposition, the provisions were able to expire.
The most likely scenario, however, is that the expiration of these provisions will be incredibly brief. The Senate is expected to pass the USA Freedom Act in a session on Tuesday, in which it will need only a simple majority of 51 votes rather than the 60-vote threshold it needed on Sunday. The expiration, therefore, will be largely symbolic rather than practical for the American public. As the New York Times reports, the government can still invoke a “grandfather clause” that allows it to keep using all of the expired provisions in investigations that began prior to June 1. Considering the NSA’s surveillance program wasn’t even known to the general public until revealed by Edward Snowden a few years ago, it’s tough to maintain any sort of trust that the agency will stop spying anyway.
By letting Section 215 expire, Paul and other lawmakers demonstrated that the status quo of the NSA’s surveillance tactics does not necessarily need to continue. The move also reflects the attitude of the American public, who have grown increasingly leery of the fact that their individual freedoms have been sacrificed due to fear of the threat of terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even with the reforms of the USA Freedom Act, however, surveillance will continue. This brief expiration is an important step forward in moving away from the surveillance state that the U.S. has become, but in the grand scheme of things, it won’t make much of a difference at all. True reform — or even constructive debate about the issue — may never come.