After the Senate’s failure to pass sweeping National Security Agency reforms last month, the Obama administration could pursue the 90-day renewal of the agency’s bulk phone spying program, which expires Friday.
The administration must get permission to continue collecting virtually all of Americans’ telephone metadata from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which renews the program legally underpinned by Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act about every three months.
Revealed through classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden more than a year ago, the 215 program was expected to be dismantled through the USA FREEDOM Act NSA reform bill, which passed the House earlier this year but ultimately failed in the Senate by two votes last month after Republicans initiated a last-minute campaign against passage, citing concerns over terrorism. (RELATED: Senate Sinks NSA Reform)
Despite the bill’s defeat, lawmakers and privacy advocates are calling on Obama not to seek renewal and abandon the program.
“The president can end the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records once and for all by not seeking reauthorization of this program by the FISA Court, and once again, I urge him to do just that,” Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy — the FREEDOM Act’s chief sponsor in the upper chamber — said Thursday according to The Hill.
“Doing so would not be a substitute for comprehensive surveillance reform legislation — but it would be an important first step.”
Under Section 215, NSA collects the phone numbers, call times, durations and other data on all of Americans’ landline phone records and stores them in agency servers for five years, searching the data for suspected links to terrorism — links many assert have no benefit to preventing terrorist attacks.
“Since Snowden we’ve had these independent reports that have come out saying this nationwide call record program actually isn’t helping us to stop terrorism,” legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Neema Singh Guliani told The Daily Caller Friday.
“At the same time over the last couple months, with all the legislation in Congress, we’ve seen the president and the administration say, ‘Look, we need to reform these programs and we acknowledge there are many reforms we can take that actually won’t, in any way, compromise national security,'” Singh Guliani said.
“And despite that, they still continue to move forward with these applications collecting everyone’s records.”
Provisions included in the Leahy bill would have taken such collection out of NSA’s hands and left it for telephone service providers to store themselves, while re-authorizing a portion of the program with stricter criteria to perform more narrow individualized searches. Those would have to be authorized by the FISC, and limit investigators to surveilling numbers only two connections away from a number suspected of being associated with terrorism.
While most Republicans came out against the bill for curbing too much NSA power in the wake of increased activity by terrorist groups such as ISIS, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul filibustered the FREEDOM Act for not going far enough, preferring to let the program end altogether with the expiration of the PATRIOT Act on June 1 rather than renew a weakened Section 215 and other authorities for two more years.
With the exception of a clause for ongoing investigations, next year’s Republican-controlled Congress could lose expanded surveillance powers altogether if they fail to pass a bill before the PATRIOT Act’s June deadline. (RELATED: This Legal Loophole Could Let NSA Spy On Americans Long After The Patriot Act Expires)