After debate pitting Americans’ distrust of intrusive government against fears of terrorist attacks, the Senate voted to move ahead with reform legislation that would replace the bulk phone records program revealed two years ago by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
It was a victory for Democratic President Barack Obama, who had pushed hard for Congress to advance the reform measure, calling it a compromise that addressed privacy concerns while preserving a program his administration describes as important to protect the country from attack.
But final Senate passage was delayed until at least Tuesday morning by objections from Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican presidential hopeful who has fulminated against the NSA program as illegal and unconstitutional.
As a result, the government’s collection and search of phone records was set to terminate at midnight (0400 GMT on Monday) when provisions of a post-Sept. 11, 2001, law known as the USA Patriot Act expire.
In addition, US law enforcement and security agencies will lose authority to conduct three other programs.
Those allow for “roving wiretaps” aimed at terrorism suspects who use multiple disposable cell phones; permit authorities to target “lone wolf” suspects with no connection to specific terrorist groups, and make it easier to seize personal and business records of suspects and their associates.
Still, eventual resumption of the phone records program in another form, and the other government powers, appeared likely after the Senate voted 77-17 to take up the reform legislation, called the USA Freedom Act.
“This bill will ultimately pass,” Paul acknowledged after the procedural vote.
The Senate abruptly reversed course during a rare Sunday session to let the bill go ahead, after Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly acknowledged that Paul had stymied his efforts to extend the Patriot Act provisions.
Intelligence experts say a lapse of only a few days would have little immediate effect. The government is allowed to continue collecting information related to any foreign intelligence investigation that began before the deadline.
Obama strongly backed the Freedom Act, as have most Democrats. It passed the House on May 13 by a 338-88 vote.
After the Senate adjourned, the White House issued a statement calling on the Senate to “put aside partisan motivations and act swiftly.”
‘Demagoguery and disinformation’
Republicans have been badly divided, delaying action on the issue, between security hawks who wanted the NSA program to continue as is, and libertarians like Paul who want to kill it altogether.
The Senate debate was angry.
In an emotional speech, Paul said the Patriot Act provisions wasted resources that would be better spent targeting those planning attacks. He even accused some of his critics of wanting an attack on the United States “so they can blame it on me.”
McConnell accused Paul, his fellow Kentucky Republican, and other Patriot Act opponents of waging “a campaign of demagoguery and disinformation” based on revelations from Snowden “who was last seen in Russia.”
McConnell has endorsed Paul for president. But he wanted to extend the Patriot Act provisions, unchanged, for five years, and agreed only reluctantly to allow a vote on the Freedom Act despite what he called its “serious flaws.”
Several senators accused Paul of using the issue to raise money for his presidential campaign.
“He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation,” Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told reporters.
The Senate came back early from a holiday to resume consideration of the legislation at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) on Sunday, just as security officials said they had to begin shutting down the NSA program to meet the midnight deadline.
The Freedom Act would end the spy agencies’ bulk collection of domestic telephone “metadata” and replace it with a more targeted system.
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. Neither the current or proposed new system gives the government access to the content of phone conversations.
Many civil liberties groups feel the Freedom Act does not go far enough in protecting privacy.
“Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration,” Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement.
A review panel that Obama established in 2013 concluded that the telephone metadata collection 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.