A Whimpering Ending for the NSA's Illegal Dragnet


The National Security Agency’s controversial bulk phone data collection program is winding down with a weird, quiet whimper. And one of the people directly responsible for closing down the program is one of its biggest supporters.

The NSA began the multi-day process to shut down its dragnet phone collection after Congress didn’t reauthorize the Patriot Act, which was used as legal justification for the mass surveillance program. “That process has begun,” an administration official told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday.

This isn’t an example of dismantling the surveillance state so much as an example of how Congressional infighting can distract Capitol Hill from getting stuff done. Members of Congress fought over the merits of the USA Freedom Act, which prohibited the NSA’s specific data collection program but renewed the Patriot Act. One of that bill’s biggest opponents was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) who tried to block the USA Freedom Act because he thought it didn’t go far enough to preserve the Patriot Act. McConnell hoped that Congress would be cornered into creating a temporary authorization of the Patriot Act if the bill didn’t pass.

McConnell’s big gamble didn’t pay off. Even though he successfully helped kill the USA Freedom Act, all of the temporary Patriot Act authorizations were also blocked by Congress. That means McConnell helped bring about exactly what some of the NSA’s most strident critics hoped: An expired, or “sunsetted” Patriot Act.

This may not be the end for the Patriot Act. On May 31, Congress will reconvene to try and hammer out a last-ditch save. But the NSA is already starting to shut things down, and by the time Congress returns from its Memorial Day vacation next Sunday, it’ll be too late to ask for the 90-day extension needed to keep collecting phone records in bulk. Unless a legislative miracle happens, starting at 5 pm on June 1, the NSA will lose its incredibly flimsy legal justification for the program