Washington: The National Security Agency (NSA) lost its authority at midnight to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk, after Republican Senator Rand Paul stood in the way of extending the fiercely-contested program in an extraordinary Sunday session in the Senate.
But that program and several other post-September 11, 2001 counter-terror measures look likely to be revived within days. With no other options, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly embraced a House of Representatives-passed Bill that would extend the provisions, while also remaking the bulk phone collections program.
Civil liberties groups applauded as Senator Paul, who is running for President, forced the expiration of the once-secret program made public by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Senate voted 77-17 to move ahead on the House-passed Bill, the USA Freedom Act.
“The Senate took an important if late step forward tonight. We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
But the Senate adjourned without final action on the Bill after Senator Paul asserted his prerogative under Senate rules to delay a final vote for a couple of days. The midnight deadline came and went.
In addition to the bulk phone collections provision, two lesser-known Patriot Act provisions also lapsed at midnight. One, so far unused, helps track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power. The second allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects, who continually discard their cell phones.
The House Bill extends those two provisions unchanged, while remaking the bulk collection program so that the NSA would stop collecting the phone records after a six-month transition period, but would be authorised under court order to search records held by phone companies.
The FBI’s use of the Patriot Act to collect hotel, travel, credit card, banking and other business records in national security investigations would also be extended under the House Bill. Law enforcement officials said the collection of those business records is more valuable than the better-known bulk phone collections program. Ongoing investigations would be permitted to continue even though authority for the programs has lapsed.
Rebooting the phone collections program would take about a day.