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White House to Senate: Don't Play Chicken With Privacy, Security

White House press secretary Josh Earnest had a message for the Senate Friday that there was a simple solution to protect civil liberties and privacy while giving the government the needed authorities to keep the country safe: Pass the USA Freedom Act.

That is the bill some say ends, others limits, the indiscriminate collection from communications companies of bulk metadata by the NSA. It does so by making the data collection more targeted and boosts transparency about what is being collected, among other things. It would not require telecom companies to keep records any longer than they currently do for business reasons.

At press time, it was not clear whether the Senate would pass that bill, defeat it, or vote on a short-term extension of the PATRIOT Act authorities, including bulk collection that the USA Freedom Act would limit.

Earnest said Senate Republicans were playing chicken with the basic civil liberties and national security of 300 million American citizens.

He said he did not think there was a constituency out there for Congress not to protect civil liberties or national security. He called it a nefarious tactic, whose motive or rational explanation escaped him.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been attempting to pass the short-term exertion of the authorities rather than the USA Freedom Act, which passed the House on a strong bipartisan vote.

While Earnest said USA Freedom had support from civil liberties groups, a bunch of critics of the NSA authorities, led in absentia by NSA leaker Edward Snowden according to the groups involved,  held "sunset vigils" Thursday night in support of letting those Patriot Act authorities sunset when they are scheduled to by the end of the month.  Those groups have argued that USA Freedom does not go far enough because it limits, but does not end, bulk collection.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks and revelations about bulk collection, the President has taken steps to rein in the program and provide more transparency, including backing the bill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said on the Senate floor that the choice was easy, pass the House bill or let the whole PATROIT Act expire. He said of the extension route that it would be extending something that doesn't exist. He said if the Senate did not vote, the PATRIOT Act authorities would expire, period.

But during the press conference, one reporter suggested that if the Senate passed a temporary extension, the House could return to pass it as well—the House has already left for the Memorial Day break.

"Americans deserve to have their privacy restored and their security protected. There should be no more excuses."

He pointed out that the bill had the support of the FBI director, NSA director, attorney general, and bipartisan House majority and even the Heritage Foundation, and even that list is hardly exhausted.

He said even if those groups had not come together, it is the only option for avoiding a sunset of the provisions. "Wow! Can't you hear the cheers from some of our enemies," he said.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.