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Administration Ramps Up NSA Pitch as Burr Makes New Offer

Burr has a new proposal to extend the NSA's bulk surveillance powers by two years. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Burr has a new proposal to extend the NSA's bulk surveillance powers by two years. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the Senate Intelligence chairman floated a new proposal, the Obama administration is warning senators against doing anything other than clearing the USA Freedom Act.  

A senior administration official said late Thursday that even adopting a short-term extension of the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act could set up a “very uncertain future for these national security authorities.”  

Some of the uncertainty, as the administration is seeking to make clear to senators, arises from the 2nd Circuit’s decision against the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency.  

“We want to make clear what we see as a very uncertain and risky path for these authorities if USA Freedom isn’t passed,” a senior administration official said. “What we’ve doing to talk to senators about USA Freedom is spelling out exactly that. The fact that the court acted the way it did … the fact that these provisions expire at midnight on May 31, and the fact that the House has now recessed we think combines to make a very, very uncertain and risky future as it relates to these authorities, including the reforms to the telephone metadata programs, but also to the other authorities.”  

The comments from the officials came after a prediction by Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr that the USA Freedom Act would not get the 60 votes needed advance.  

With his own preferred option also unlikely to get the needed supermajority, Burr’s preparing to unveil a new bill.  

Under the North Carolina Republican’s latest offering, the details of which he pledged to make public Friday, there would be a 24-month period to allow for a transition between the current holding of bulk data collected by the government and the records being held by the telephone companies.  

The North Carolina Republican said that in his estimation, the longer transition window than provided in the USA Freedom Act is needed to ensure that the NSA has developed the technology needed to query the phone records that they would no longer be holding themselves. That’s despite support for the House-passed bill from the Obama administration and repeated calls for Senate passage.  

“We haven’t seen Sen. Burr’s proposal,” a senior administration official said, though it was made clear the 180-day window for the new mechanism that would have records maintained by telephone companies was developed “with the consultation of the intelligence community.”  

“If there’s any concern with implementation, we can come back,” the official said. “The bottom line is 180 days, from the professionals, has been deemed sufficient.”  

Burr, however, predicted that such a bill could be debated on the Senate floor after the Memorial Day recess, meaning a shorter-term extension of current authorities would be required to keep the existing collection program from facing a lapse in authorization. He said that there’s precedent for the House being called back under emergency circumstances.  

“The unfortunate thing is I can’t necessarily agree to something they think they can do and there’s such a big national security gap at stake. This brings certainty, it allows the NSA more than enough time, if [NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers] is correct, to develop the technology, but provides the comfort to the American people of knowing this program’s not going to go away prematurely,” Burr said. “But for those that are anxious to see the data switch, it is definitely going to transfer to the telecom companies 24 months after enactment.”  

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