United States government’s key surveillance powers, including that of collecting bulk phone data, expired Sunday after the Senate failed to either extend them or pass an enabling bill.
But the spy agency is expected to get them back around Tuesday — with significant changes though — as the Senate did vote to take up a bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives.
The White House, which is backing the House bill, called the expiration of those powers an “irresponsible lapse” and said in a statement it hoped they were “as short-lived as possible”.
For now, the National Security Agency cannot collect bulk phone data. And the FBI cannot track suspects who changed phones and “lone wolf” attackers not linked to any group.
The senate had convened Sunday evening solely to pass the House bill or temporarily extend an expiring Act that enables authorities to conduct those surveillance programmes.
But it failed to do either in the face of strident opposition from Republican senator Rand Paul, who is running for the White House and who is a long-time opponent of those programmes.
If and when enacted, the House bill, USA Freedom Act, will replace the retiring Patriot Act, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks but is said to have lost relevance since.
NSA contractor Edward Snowden made these programmes public in 2013 along with many others, including snooping on foreign missions on US soil, including India’s.
The collection of bulk phone data — numbers and call duration, not content — attracted maximum attention in the US, as it was seen as the government spying on its own people.
The House bill takes away that power from the NSA, preventing it from sweeping up bulk phone data, which, when the bill becomes law, will remain with phone companies.
The spy agency or law enforcement agencies such as the FBI will be allowed access only against specific requests authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The Freedom Act passed Republican-controlled House with bipartisan support, and the backing of the White House, but has run into trouble in the Republican-controlled senate,
Party hawks, mostly senators such as majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, are opposed to any dilution of NSA’s surveillance powers citing continuing security challenge.
And there is Paul, who wants to end them.