22 October 2016
Republican Senator Rand Paul blocked several attempts at short-term extensions of the controversial surveillance program. Photo: Reuters
Republican Senator Rand Paul blocked several attempts at short-term extensions of the controversial surveillance program. Photo: Reuters

Controversial US surveillance program expires

The US Senate on Sunday failed to reach a deal that would prevent key provisions of a controversial program that collects Americans’ telephone call records from expiring at midnight.

The Senate voted 77-17 in favor of a measure that allowed the chamber to begin debate on a bill that would end US spy agencies’ bulk collection of the telephone data and replace it with a more targeted system cleared a crucial procedural hurdle, ending an impasse over whether to move ahead with the legislation, Reuters reported.

But the domestic surveillance program was still due to expire at midnight (12 a.m. EDT on Monday) after Senator Rand Paul, who is a candidate for the 2016 presidential election, blocked several attempts at short-term extensions, the news agency said.

Senate rules mean it will probably be the middle of the week before the chamber can vote on whether or not to pass the Freedom Act, which extends the existing surveillance program for six months while the new system gets up and running.

Still, Paul acknowledged after the procedural vote: “This bill will ultimately pass.”

The bill would replace three key surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act, signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Parts of it have been renewed under Democratic President Barack Obama. Under the law, the eavesdropping National Security Agency collects and searches US telephone records – but not the content of the calls themselves – in a program first made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Action to renew or reform the program had stalled in the Senate, due largely to disputes within the Republican Party, which holds majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

Libertarians want the program ended altogether, while security hawks want it extended, unchanged.

Along with the call records program, other government investigative powers would lapse after midnight Sunday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation will no longer be able to employ “roving wiretaps” aimed at terrorism suspects who use multiple disposable cellphones, and it will have more difficulty seizing such suspects’ and their associates’ personal and business records.

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

CIA Director John Brennan, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, said data collection was “important to American lives” and that being without them could mean missing warning of a big attack on the United States.

Under the Freedom Act, the telephone 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, the report said.

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