Senate meets to debate future of US telephone spying powers – Reuters


WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate convened a rare Sunday session in a last-ditch attempt to pass legislation to allow U.S. spy agencies to continue to sweep up information on Americans’ telephone calls and other business records.

Failure to pass such legislation would mean that key provisions of the USA Patriot Act would expire and, facing a midnight (0400 GMT Monday) deadline, the National Security Agency would have to shut off a vast surveillance system.

The Patriot Act was 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.

But with the clock ticking on some sections of the act, efforts to renew them have stalled in the Senate, which also has failed to advance a compromise bill known as the USA Freedom Act that would reform the telephone data program.

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

The Senate came back early from its Memorial Day recess 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.

Although Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives, the party’s leaders have been unable to agree on how to deal with the deadline.

As the Senate session got underway, Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican presidential hopeful who has vowed to force the program to expire, called it illegal and the beginning of a powerful surveillance state.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg, what we’re talking about here,” he said.

But another Republican, Senator Dan Coats, warned that the phone records program could expire at a time of heightened militant threats.

The Islamic State group “has made a direct threat toward the United States and its citizens,” Coats said. It “looks like we’ll have the opportunity to debate this while the program expires,” he said.

It is unclear if supporters of the Freedom Act can get the 60 votes needed to move it forward in the 100-member Senate.

A previous attempt on May 23 fell three votes short and the bill’s backers have been pushing hard to sway three more senators.

One senator who voted against the bill on May 23, Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said on Sunday he would now vote “yes.”

Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, said he believed there were now enough votes to pass the Freedom Act. “Everybody’s come to their senses,” he said.

The Freedom Act, which ends the spy agencies’ bulk collection of domestic telephone “metadata” and replaces it with a more targeted system, has already passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin and has Obama’s strong support.

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 cell phones, 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 existence of the NSA program was revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, prompting calls for reform.

(Additional reporting by Douwe Miedema and Bill Trott.; Editing by Crispian Balmer, Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh)

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