Patriot Act Renewal Divides GOP Establishment From Libertarian Conservatives

WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill on Tuesday to renew several controversial surveillance programs under the Patriot Act, setting up a battle between libertarian-leaning Republicans and their hawkish GOP establishment colleagues.

McConnell and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., offered the bill that would extend the Section 215 bulk collection of phone records along with the so-called “lone wolf” provision allowing the government to spy on potential terrorists not directly connected to any terrorist cells. These surveillance tactics have come under fire since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the programs to the American public.

Sen. Tom Cotton, a 37-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who vaulted to a Senate seat in November, has joined the neoconservative wing of the GOP to reject the safeguards and restrictions being demanded by civil libertarian conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“Almost every Republican elected last year believes that America is strong and safe when America is leading the world,” Cotton said in an interview with Politico. “And I don’t think many Republicans will want to see critical programs expire that will reopen intelligence gaps from the 1990s.”

But GOP House members, which has several vocal libertarian-leaning lawmakers, is pushing to restrict bulk data collections and uncover how much participation telephone companies have in cooperating with domestic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“I don’t support anything in the Patriot Act,” Paul, the Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate, said in an interview with Politico. “I want to repeal the whole thing.”

“This is just where Rand and I disagree,” responded Cotton.

Rep. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, echoed Paul’s sentiment on adding an “adequate balance” of safeguards to protect civil liberties under the Patriot Act.

“I want to make sure we protect the privacy and the freedoms of the American people,” Rep. Steve Daines, R-Montana, told Politico. “We’ve got to ensure that this is a very, very high priority as we look at the Patriot Act going forward.”

President Obama supported previous bipartisan changes to the Patriot Act, although such legislation failed after it was blocked by a McConnell pushback late last year. Top intelligence Democrats are hoping a renewal bill with no transparency reforms or surveillance curbs will land on his desk before the May 31 deadline.

“The president will have a problem with it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Politico.

But Sen. Cotton says Obama administration has already done enough to address privacy concerns following the Snowden revelations.

“That’s unneeded, and it also ties the hands of not only the commander-in-chief but also the intelligence professionals,” Cotton said. “Why would you codify a set of safeguards you might want to change as technology evolves and you face new risks of privacy, in addition to changing safeguards that might need to be relaxed in an emergency situation?”

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