Senate Republicans have launched the opening salvo in a battle over government surveillance powers, introducing a bill to preserve intact the National Security Agency's authority to store and search domestic telephone records.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked a public furor in 2013 when he leaked documents showing that the spy agency was secretly collecting telephone metadata – records showing the time, date, duration and numbers called – for use in terrorism investigations.
Despite vows by President Obama to limit the program, and concern by civil liberties groups and some on Capitol Hill that it went too far in invading Americans' privacy in the name of national security, the NSA archiving of U.S. phone records has continued essentially unchanged.
A report released Wednesday by the Director of National Intelligence indicates that the records were checked for 227 "known or presumed" Americans last year. That compares with 248 in 2013, the first year such figures were released.
Legal authority for the program, contained in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, is set to expire June 1. That has set off a race between lawmakers who want to preserve the government's surveillance powers and those who want to rein them in.
In an unusual procedural move, the GOP measure to extend the NSA's so-called "bulk collection" of phone records was not considered by any Senate committee. Instead, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), backed by the Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), moved about 10 p.m. Tuesday to ask the full Senate to reauthorize Section 215 without changes.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) criticized the late-night maneuver, saying the GOP leadership in the Senate is "trying to quietly pass a straight reauthorization of the bulk collection program that has been proven ineffective and unnecessary."
Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have considered the legislation, said he would oppose any bill that does not contain "meaningful" reforms to the collection program.
"This tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance will not succeed," Leahy said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would consider "some reforms" to the program, "but my No. 1 goal of the Patriot Act is to make sure we don't have another 9/11.... I will not vote for Patriot Act that is compromised."
A bill to limit the NSA's bulk-collection of telephone data passed the House last year but failed in the Senate.
Intelligence officials have said the then-secret archives had helped authorities stop at least a dozen terrorist plots. Critics say only one case was discovered as a direct result of a phone record search: an Anaheim cab driver who was sentenced in 2014 for sending money to an Al Qaeda cell in Somalia.
"Given the number of foreign fighters going to Syria, and Al Qaeda having an even freer hand in Yemen, we should think carefully before restricting important intelligence authorities," Michael Allen, a former chief of staff for the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), said the possibility that the provision will expire June 1 could create enough pressure on opponents to agree to some changes to the program.
"This is the one opportunity we have to use the sunset as a lever to get some reform done," Schiff said in an interview.
Despite the move by Senate Republicans to preserve the NSA program intact, House Republicans appear more willing to hem in the agency's ability to collect intelligence on Americans.
A bipartisan group in the House is set to introduce legislation that would curtail bulk collection, establish an independent advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that helps oversee government spying, and more narrowly define so-called selector terms used by the NSA to define the scope of data requested from U.S. phone companies, among other provisions.
Under the program, the NSA does not obtain the content of communications or audio of phone conversations. The data in the phone records are searched for connections to telephone numbers used by known or suspected terrorists and their associates.
But privacy advocates say that the times, dates and the numbers called, when mapped together, open an intrusive window on the activities and associations of Americans.
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.