NSA loses power to collect phone records as parts of Patriot Act expire


Senate fails to meet midnight deadline after opposition by libertarian senator Rand Paul

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The USA Freedom Act is opposed by Rand Paul Photo: Mike Theiler/Reuters

The NSA has temporarily lost its power to collect the phone records of millions of Americans after the US Senate failed to meet a midnight deadline for re-authorising the surveillance programme.

A deadlock between Republicans in Congress meant that parts of the Patriot Act, the sweeping counter-terror legislation rushed in after September 11th, were allowed to lapse.

The NSA’s authorities are likely to be restored by a slightly reformed law later this week but US officials warned that even a temporary lapse in spying capabilities could be dangerous.

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Ted Cruz, centre, backed the USA Freedom compromise bill (Reuters)

The reform law, known as the USA Freedom Act, puts modest restraints on the power of the NSA and would mean that phone records would be stored by phone companies instead of the American government.

The USA Freedom Act has the support of a broad majority of senators from both parties but is opposed by Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who is running for president.

Mr Paul argues that even in its modified form the mass collection of the phone records of people not suspected of any crime is unconstitutional.

“We should not be debating modifying an illegal program. We should simply end this illegal program,” Mr Paul said.

A political group supporting Mr Paul put out a video which casts him as hero of freedom fighting against President Barack Obama and conservatives like Ted Cruz who backed the USA Freedom compromise bill.

The USA Freedom Act has already passed the House of Representatives and Mr Obama has promised to sign it into law if it can clear the Senate.

While Mr Paul is unable to prevent its eventual passage, he has succeeded in using parliamentary procedure to delay it beyond the midnight deadline.

The result is that the NSA has begun switching off parts of the dragnet surveillance programme, known technically as bulk telephony metadata collection.

As the deadline approached, Mr Paul claimed victory in temporarily halting the NSA programme.

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The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland (AFP)

“This is a victory no matter how you look at it,” he said. “It might be short lived, but I hope that it provides a road for a robust debate, which will strengthen our intelligence community, while also respecting our Constitution.”

The Senate standoff is the latest turning point in a national debate over security and liberty which was sparked by Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified NSA surveillance programmes.

Among the revelations in his stolen classified files was that both the Bush and Obama administrations were using a provision of the Patriot Act known as section 215 as the legal basis for collecting phone records.

Republicans in the Senate had long known that section 215, along with other parts of the law, would expire at midnight but were divided over what should be done about it.

Some national security hawks believe that the Patriot Act should simply be reauthorised, arguing that the US still faces a grave danger from terrorism. Jeb Bush and the Republican leader in the Senate support this course.

A vote for a simple re-authorisation failed on May 23.

Others argued for the reform law, known as the USA Freedom Act, which puts some limits on the NSA and is supported by the White House and Senate Democrats.

A vote on the USA Freedom Act also failed on May 23 but last night several Republican hawks, conscious of the midnight deadline and realising that the Patriot Act stood no chance of passage, changed their votes.

The USA Freedom Act passed an initial vote 77 to 17 and is likely to receive final passage later in the week.

Mr Paul has strongly opposed both options and his parliamentary fight to prevent the USA Freedom Act passing before the midnight deadline drew the anger of fellow senators in both parties.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate leader and Mr Paul’s fellow Kentucky senator, accused him of waging a “campaign of demagoguery and disinformation”.

Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, accused Mr Paul of “holding critical national security programs hostage to raise political donations”.

Mr Paul has encouraged his supporters to tweet their support his lonely opposition with the hashtag #StandwithRand.

Source: The Telegraph

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