Even as the Senate remains at an impasse over the future of US domestic surveillance powers, the National Security Agency will be legally unable to collect US phone records in bulk by the time Congress returns from its Memorial Day vacation.
The administration, as suggested in a memo it sent Congress on Wednesday, declined to ask a secret surveillance court for another 90-day extension of the order necessary to collect US phone metadata in bulk. The filing deadline was Friday, hours before the Senate failed to come to terms on a bill that would have formally repealed the NSA domestic surveillance program.
“We did not file an application for reauthorization,” an administration official confirmed to the Guardian on Saturday.
The administration decision ensures that beginning at 5pm ET on 1 June, for the first time since October 2001 the NSA will no longer collect en masse Americans’ phone records.
It represents a quiet, unceremonious end to the most domestically acrimonious NSA program revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, in a June 2013 exposé in the Guardian – effectively preempting a bid by GOP leader Mitch McConnell to retain it. But McConnell and other Senate Republicans intend to continue their fight to preserve both that program and other broad surveillance powers under the Patriot Act.
A chaotic early morning on Saturday in the Senate ended with the procedural defeat of the USA Freedom Act, which would have banned the NSA bulk collection program while renewing an expiring Patriot Act provision allowing FBI access to business records and a vast amount of US communications metadata.
But McConnell, who is seeking to retain all current domestic surveillance powers, also failed to convince the Senate to pass a temporary extension of the provision, known as Section 215, which shuts down at midnight on 31 May. McConnell’s alternative would retain all existing FBI under Section 215 as well as the NSA bulk phone records collection.
McConnell will reconvene the Senate on 31 May to attempt to settle the issue. Even if he can pass his temporary extension, all of Section 215 will still expire, since the House left on Thursday having overwhelmingly approved the Freedom Act and will not return until 1 June.
With the two houses of Congress at odds, privacy advocates prepared themselves for a circumstance they had been unable to engineer since 2001: the wholesale rollback of a wide swath of post-9/11 domestic surveillance.
“The Senate is in gridlock, but the tides are shifting,” Michael Macleod-Ball of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office said Saturday. “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.
Read more: theguardian.com
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