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Bulk Collection Debate Highlights Need To Revise Patriot Act

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Patriot Act, the USA Freedom Act, bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency - let's look a little more deeply into all that. Kim Zetter is a senior staff reporter at Wired magazine. She's reported in depth on government surveillance and the legislation that allows it. Welcome to the program.

KIM ZETTER: Thank you.

CORNISH: So let's begin with the Patriot Act - right? - because this is the legal basis which allowed the NSA to sweep in all sorts of information about phone calls, collect bulk phone records. But Congress is wrestling over just a few provisions, right?

ZETTER: Right. So they're wrestling over three provisions that are set to expire at midnight on June 1. And the most controversial of those is known as Section 215. And Section 215 is the section that the government had used to, it says, authorize its bulk collection of phone records from U.S. telecoms.

There are two other provisions that are sun-setting - one known as 206, which is the roving wiretap section. And this allows the government to surveil any phone that a suspect uses without having to go back to a court to obtain an individual warrant for each phone, such as a landline at home, an office phone, and a cell phone.

The third one that's expiring is 6001, and this is known as the lone wolf provision. And this allows the government to conduct surveillance against a non-U.S. person who's suspected of terrorism or terrorism activity but isn't affiliated with a known or recognized terrorist group.

CORNISH: So to go back to that measure 215 about the bulk data collection, the House has just passed some limits to that under the USA Freedom Act. And as Ailsa Chang just told us, it's now before the Senate. Can you describe the limit specifically that the USA Freedom Act would put on the activities that are currently allowed by the Patriot Act?

ZETTER: Yeah. So the Section 215 - reform this bulk collection program, and instead of allowing the NSA or the government to automatically collect all of these phone records from the telecoms, the phone records would be retained by the telecoms. And then the government, in order to access those, would have to go through a court and could only request certain records based on search terms that are approved by the court.

CORNISH: So to be clear, we're not talking about a repeal or an end to these programs altogether, right? That doesn't seem to be on the table. Why not?

ZETTER: Right. This is a compromise. Well, it - because the government has insisted that this program is necessary and it has enough backers in the Senate and Congress who agree with them. And so this has been a compromise that allows the program to continue in some form but in a form that's a little more acceptable to civil liberties groups, although, I would say, not quite completely because they still sort of oppose it on principle.

CORNISH: But is there any consensus over whether or not this government program actually foiled any terror plots?

ZETTER: There isn't real consensus on this, but those who support the program and say that it has foiled terrorism plots are a little hard-pressed to provide evidence of that. And there are those on the opposite side. The president had convened the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board after the Snowden revelations, and they looked into this program, and they determined that it hadn't provided significant intelligence and thwarted terrorism activity. Senator Ron Wyden has also looked extensively into the program, and he's concluded that it also didn't provide any intelligence that thwarted a terrorism operation.

CORNISH: Kim, stepping back for a moment, are we witnessing a kind of slow erosion of the Patriot Act? Is this Section 215 just a part of that?

ZETTER: I think that, obviously, the opponents of a USA Patriot Act would hope that this is a first step. I think that all this debate sort of underscores that the Patriot Act needs to be re-examined and revised and re-debated. In an environment now where we actually have more information about how the surveillance programs authorized by it are being conducted - you know, this is information that we didn't have in its entirety prior to Snowden. We had little bits and pieces, and so we have a greater picture now of it. And so those who oppose it are saying that this gives us the opportunity now to re-examine it in light of all of these revelations.

CORNISH: That's Kim Zetter. She's a senior staff reporter at Wired magazine. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZETTER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.