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Why Rand Paul is filibustering the Patriot Act

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
  1. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is conducting a filibuster against reauthorization of a controversial provision of the Patriot Act that allows the government to obtain business records.
  2. The government has cited it as the legal basis for collecting every American's phone records, but an appeals court recently held that the program was illegal.
  3. The House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would reauthorize the business record provision with additional safeguards.
  4. The provision is slated to expire on June 1, creating pressure for Congress to act.

The NSA is collecting every American's phone records, and Paul wants them to stop

In recent weeks, congressional debate has focused on a controversial program that scoops up records of every American's phone calls. The existence of the program was revealed by a 2013 leak from whistleblower Ed Snowden, and it's been in operation for about a decade.

The government says the program is authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Section 215 allows the government to seek information that is "relevant to an authorized investigation." The Obama administration has argued that a database of every phone call in the United States qualifies because it provides a wealth of information that helps the government conduct terrorism investigations.

But civil liberties groups disagree. "The government is arguing that every one of you is relevant to an investigation of terrorism," Paul said during his Wednesday filibuster in the Senate. "That's absurd."

Earlier this month the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York gave civil libertarians a major win. The court held that while Section 215 of the Patriot Act gives the government broad latitude, it's not unlimited. The NSA's program, which scoops up every American's phone records, went too far, according to the appeals court.

Then, on May 13, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation that narrows the NSA's power to spy on Americans.

Yet some NSA critics believe the House legislation doesn't do enough to rein in the spy agency. And their position was strengthened by this month's win in court. After that decision, one major civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, decided to oppose the House legislation.

Paul's filibuster can't actually stop Patriot Act legislation

Paul agrees with EFF that the House legislation doesn't do enough to limit the NSA's spying powers. According to the Washington Post, Paul says "he would vote no on the USA Freedom Act, a compromise bill that would stop the government from collecting data but allow phone companies to keep it, because he is afraid it could actually expand government power." After all, if Congress does nothing, the controversial Patriot Act provision will expire altogether.

But many of Paul's fellow Republicans disagree. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to reauthorize the law without making any changes, a position that would put the Senate at odds with the House's compromise legislation.

Paul is filibustering to prevent McConnell from moving forward legislation to extend the Patriot Act provisions. But his ability to delay action is limited. At 1 pm tomorrow, the Senate is scheduled to take up legislation to give president Obama trade promotion authority. If Paul is still talking then, he'll have to stop, and Senate leaders are unlikely to give him the floor again after that.

Jon Allen contributed to this story.

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