Senate lets NSA spy program lapse, at least for now

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NSA Patriot Act Powers Lapse, Freedom Act Lives On


The legal authority for U.S. spy agencies' collection of Americans' phone records and other data expired at midnight on Sunday after the U.S. Senate failed to pass legislation extending the powers.

After debate pitting Americans' distrust of intrusive government against fears of terrorist attacks, the Senate voted to advance reform legislation that would replace the bulk phone records programme revealed two years ago by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Although the Senate did not act in time to keep the programme from expiring, the vote was at least a partial victory for Democratic President Barack Obama, who had pushed for the reform measure as a compromise addressing privacy concerns whilst preserving a tool to help protect the country from attack.

But final Senate passage was delayed until at least Tuesday by objections from Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican presidential hopeful who has fulminated against the NSA programme as illegal and unconstitutional.

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Senate lets NSA spy program lapse, at least for now
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Obama began with commenting on flooding in Texas and calling on Senate to act on USA Freedom Act. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. Patrick Leahy (L) (D-VT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) leave the Senate floor after passage of the USA Freedom Act June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The legislation will replace the recently expired Patriot Act and passed the Senate by a vote of 67-32. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Joyce Barr (L), chief FOIA officer for the State Department, Melanie Anne Pustay (2L), director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, Karen Neuman (3L), chief FOIA officer at the Homeland Security Department, and Mary Howard (2R), director of the Internal Revenue Service's Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure Division, watch as Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-CA) (2R) and Brodi Fontenot, chief FOIA officer at the Treasury Department, shake hands during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill June 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing about the Freedom of Information Act process. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) talks with reporters about the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matches the House version of the bill and will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (L) tells House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) 'A bad bill is better than no bill at all,' after the final passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Reforming how the nation's spy agencies collects citizens' phone data, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matching the House version of the bill and going to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Sen. John Thune (R-SD) (C) talks with reporters after the final passage of the USA FREEDOM Act at the U.S. Capitol June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Reforming how the nation's spy agencies collects citizens' phone data, the legislation passed the Senate 67-32, matching the House version of the bill and going to President Barack Obama for his signature. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) talks with U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) (L) in between television interviews 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)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Earnest discussed the NSA phone collection bill, US-led coalition's IS group strategy, and Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner, and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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 - MAY 31: (L - R) Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) listens as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to reporters after exiting the Senate chamber, on Capitol Hill, 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 - MAY 31: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, 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 - MAY 31: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks with reporters on his way to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, 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)
President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 29, 2015. The said a "handful of senators" are the only thing standing in the way of an extension of key Patriot Act provisions before they expire at midnight Sunday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks to media as he meets with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 29, 2015. The president said a "handful of senators" are the only thing standing in the way of an extension of key Patriot Act provisions before they expire at midnight Sunday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 29: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks to members of the news media after meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office at the White House May 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. Calling it an essential piece of legislation for fighting terrorism, Obama demanded that the U.S. Senate pass the USA Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that would end bulk collection of Americans' metadata, improve the FISA court and other security reforms. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) talks to reporters after leaving the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, 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 - MAY 31: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) gets into an elevator after leaving the Senate floor on Capitol Hill, 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 - MAY 19: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) talks to reporters after the weekly Senate GOP policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Although he does not support the House version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate would go forward with a vote on the legislation that would eliminate the bulk data collection programs, which were exposed by Edward Snowden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In this image from Senate video, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a Republican presidential contender, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2015, at the Capitol in Washington, during a long speech opposing renewal of the Patriot Act. Paul claimed he was filibustering, but under the Senate rules, he wasn’t. (Senate TV via AP)
FILE - In this May 19, 2015 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Key Patriot Act anti-terror provisions, including bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, expire at midnight unless senators come up with an 11th hour deal in an extraordinary Sunday afternoon session. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
FILE - In this April 29, 2015 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. Republican senators eyeing the presidency split over the renewal of the Patriot Act surveillance law, with civil libertarians at odds with traditional defense hawks who back tough spying powers in the fight against terrorism. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
FILE - In this May 16, 2015 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. Paul vowed on Monday to “everything possible” to block renewal of the terrorism-era Patriot Act, but the Republican presidential hopeful conceded it may not be enough. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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As a result, the government's collection and search of phone records terminated at midnight when key provisions of a post-Sept. 11, 2001, law known as the USA Patriot Act expired.

In addition, U.S. law enforcement and security agencies will lose authority to conduct other programmes.

Those allow for "roving wiretaps" aimed at terrorism suspects who use multiple disposable cell phones; permit authorities to target "lone wolf" suspects with no connexion to specific terrorist groups, and make it easier to seize personal and business records of suspects and their associates.

Still, eventual resumption of the phone records programme in another form, and the other government powers, appeared likely after the Senate voted 77-17 to take up the reform legislation, called the USA Freedom Act.

"This bill will ultimately pass," Paul acknowledged after the procedural vote.

The Senate abruptly reversed course during a rare Sunday session to let the bill go ahead, after Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly acknowledged that Paul had stymied his efforts to extend the Patriot Act provisions.

Intelligence experts say a lapse of only a few days would have little immediate effect. The government is allowed to continue collecting information related to any foreign intelligence investigation that began before the deadline.

Obama strongly backed the Freedom Act, as have most Democrats. It passed the House of Representatives on May 13 by 338-88.

After the Senate adjourned, the White House issued a statement calling on the Senate to "put aside partisan motivations and act swiftly."

The measure could face more debate in Congress. Republican Senator Richard Burr offered several amendments, including one to extend the existing programme for 12 months to provide more time to adopt changes mandated by the Freedom Act.

That could be a problem for some House members, because it doubles the transition period in their version of the bill.

'DEMAGOGUERY AND DISINFORMATION'

Republicans have been deeply divided on the issue. Security hawks wanted the NSA programme to continue as is, and libertarians like Paul want to kill it altogether.

The Senate debate was angry.

Paul said the Patriot Act provisions wasted resources better spent targeting those planning attacks. He even accused some of his critics of wanting an attack on the United States "so they can blame it on me."

McConnell accused Paul, his fellow Kentucky Republican, and other Patriot Act opponents of waging "a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation" based on revelations from Snowden "who was last seen in Russia."

McConnell has endorsed Paul for president. But he wanted to extend the Patriot Act provisions, unchanged, for five years, and agreed only reluctantly to allow a vote on the Freedom Act despite what he called its "serious flaws."

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Several senators accused Paul of using the issue to raise money for his presidential campaign.

"He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation," Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told reporters.

The Senate resumed consideration of the legislation at 4 p.m. EDT, just as security officials said they had to begin shutting down the NSA programme to meet the deadline.

The Freedom Act would end spy agencies' bulk collection of domestic telephone "metadata" and replace it with a more targeted system.

The records would be held by telecommunications companies, not the government, and the NSA would have to get court approval to gain access to specific data. Neither the current nor proposed new system gives the government access to the content of phone conversations.

Many civil liberties groups feel the Freedom Act does not go far enough in protecting privacy.

"Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration," Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement.

A review panel Obama established in 2013 concluded that the metadata collection programme had not been essential to preventing any terrorist attack. Security officials counter that it provides important data they can combine with other intelligence to help stop attacks.

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