WASHINGTON (AP) – The National Security Agency lost its authority at midnight to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk, after an extraordinary Sunday Senate session failed to produce a deal to extend the fiercely contested program.
Intelligence officials warned that the outcome amounts to a win for extremist groups. But civil liberties groups applauded the demise, at least temporarily, of the once-secret program made public by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which critics say is an unconstitutional intrusion into Americans’ privacy.
The program is all but certain to be revived in a matter of days, although it also looks certain to be completely overhauled under House of Representatives-passed legislation that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly blessed Sunday evening.
With most senators opposed to extending current law unchanged, even for a short time, McConnell said the House bill was the only option left, other than letting the program die off. The Senate voted 77-17 to move ahead on the House-passed bill.
But no final action happened before Sunday’s midnight deadline after McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said he would assert his prerogatives under Senate rules to delay a final vote for several days.
“This is what we fought the revolution over, are we going to so blithely give up our freedom? … I’m not going to take it anymore,” Paul said.
McConnell countered: “We shouldn’t be disarming unilaterally as our enemies grow more sophisticated and aggressive, and we certainly should not be doing so based on a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation launched in the wake of the unlawful actions of Edward Snowden.”
Fellow Republicans exited the chamber en masse when Paul stood up to speak after the Senate’s vote on the House bill.
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 cellphones.
The House bill, backed by the White House, extends those two provisions unchanged, while remaking the bulk collection program over six months by giving phone companies the job of hanging onto records the government could search with a warrant.
CIA Director John Brennan was among those warning that letting the authorities lapse, even for a time, will make America less safe.
Brennan, speaking on CBS, bemoaned “too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have skewed the debate on this issue” and said the tools are important to American lives.
For Paul, the issue represents a potent political opportunity, and his presidential campaign has been sending out numerous fundraising appeals focused on it.
The NSA already has begun winding down the phone collection program in anticipation that it will not be renewed. To ensure the program ceased by the time authority for it expires at midnight, the agency planned to begin shutting down the servers that carry it out at 3:59 p.m. Sunday. That step was reversible for four hours but after that, rebooting takes about a day.