NSA winds down once-secret phone-records collection program

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The National Security Agency has begun winding down its collection and storage of American phone records after the Senate failed to agree on a path forward to change or extend the once-secret program ahead of its expiration at the end of the month.

Barring an 11th hour compromise when the Senate returns to session May 31, a much-debated provision of the Patriot Act - and some other lesser known surveillance tools - will sunset at midnight that day. The change also would have a major impact on the FBI, which uses the Patriot Act and the other provisions to gather records in investigations of suspected spies and terrorists.

In a chaotic scene during the wee hours of Saturday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the NSA's bulk collection but preserved its ability to search the records held by the phone companies on a case-by-case basis. The bill was backed by President Barack Obama, House Republicans and the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence officials.

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NSA winds down once-secret phone-records collection program
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is seen via live video link from Russia on a computer screen during a parliamentary hearing on the subject of 'Improving the protection of whistleblowers', on June 23, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) prepares to do a live interview with FOX News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) does a live interview with FOX News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: The U.S. Capitol is illuminated at dusk, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Larry Klayman (C), of the political advocacy group Freedom Watch, holds a news conference with Charles Strange (L) and Mary Ann Strange on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Stranges, who joined the class action lawsuit, allege that their phones were tapped when they began questioning the circumstances around the death of their son, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2011. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Larry Klayman (2R), of the political advocacy group Freedom Watch, ends a news conference with Charles Strange (2L) and Mary Ann Strange (C) on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Stranges, who joined the class action lawsuit, allege that their phones were tapped when they began questioning the circumstances around the death of their son, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2011. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) arrives in front of U.S. District Court to announce the filing of a class action lawsuit against the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FBI Director James Comey. Paul said he filed the lawsuit to stop NSA surveillance of U.S. phone records because Obama has Òpublicly refused to stop a clear and continuing violation of the 4th amendment.Ó (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: (L -R) Freedom Watch representatives Brandon Wheatley, Dina James and Larry Klayman talk outside of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The DC Circuit Court held an oral argument over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
FILE - In this April 7, 2015 file photo, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. holds up his cell phone as he speaks before announcing the start of his presidential campaign, in Louisville, Ky. The Justice Department warned lawmakers that the National Security Agency (NSA) will have to wind down its bulk collection of Americans' phone records by the end of the week if Congress fails to reauthorize the Patriot Act. The Republican divisions over the issue was on stark display in the Senate on Wednesday as Paul, a candidate for president, stood on the floor and spoke at length about his opposition to NSA spying. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, speaks at George Washington University May 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security held a discussion on the state of cybersecurity threats to the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., ride back back to their offices following roll call votes on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday night, Nov. 18, 2014. Polar opposites on most issues, Cruz and Franken were in agreement when both voted "yes" on a bill to end the bulk collection of American phone records by the National Security Agency, although the measure failed 58-42. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. The House debates and votes for final passage on NSA Surveillance legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act. The measure seeks to codify President Barack Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records. It would allow the agency to request certain records held by the telephone companies under a court order in terrorism investigations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Admiral Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, speaks at George Washington University May 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security held a discussion on the state of cybersecurity threats to the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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It fell just three votes short of the 60 needed for passage. All the "no" votes but one were cast by Republicans, some of whom said they thought the USA Freedom Act didn't go far enough to help the NSA maintain its capabilities.

If Senate Republican leaders were counting on extending current law and continuing the negotiations, they miscalculated. Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans refused to go along. A bill to grant a two-month extension of the law failed, and senators objected to each attempt by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offer up a short term extension.

The failure to act means the NSA will immediately begin curtailing its searches of domestic phone records for connections to international terrorists. The Justice Department said in a statement that it will take time to taper off the collection process from the phone companies. That process began Friday, said an administration official who would not be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

While the phone records program has never been credited with thwarting a terrorist plot, the Senate failure also imperils other tools that the FBI has been using to hunt for suspected spies and terrorists.

The FBI uses Section 215 of the Patriot Act to gather financial and other types of records in national security cases. Another expiring provision makes it easier for the bureau to track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones in an effort to avoid surveillance.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky's other senator and a Republican presidential candidate, called the Senate's failure to allow an extension of the surveillance programs a victory for privacy rights.

"We should never give up our rights for a false sense of security," Paul said in a statement.

Some civil liberties groups joined Paul in praising the result, saying they would rather see the Patriot Act provision authorizing NSA phone collection expire altogether.

"For the first time, a majority of senators took a stand against simply rubber-stamping provisions of the Patriot Act that have been used to spy on Americans," said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.

But Nuala O'Connor, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called the Senate's inaction "inexcusable after two years of debate and bipartisan compromise."

And a presumed GOP presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, took a veiled swipe at Paul by blaming the failure to extend the Patriot Act on "misguided ideologues who have no real world experience in fighting terrorism."

Section 215 of the Patriot Act is used by the government to justify collecting the "to and from" information about nearly every American landline telephone call.

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program in 2013, many Americans were outraged that NSA had their calling records. Obama ultimately announced a plan similar to the USA Freedom Act and asked Congress to pass it. He said the plan would preserve the NSA's ability to hunt for domestic connections to international plots without having an intelligence agency hold millions of Americans' private records.

Since it gave the government extraordinary powers, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was designed to expire at midnight on May 31 unless Congress renews it. An appeals court has ruled that the phone collection does not comply with the law, but stayed the ruling while Congress debated.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the government would transition over six months to a system under which it queries the phone companies with known terrorists' numbers to get back a list of numbers that had been in touch with a terrorist number.

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