NSA loses authority to collect Americans' phone records in bulk.

NSA Can No Longer Collect Americans' Phone Records in Bulk

NSA Can No Longer Collect Americans' Phone Records in Bulk

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June 1 2015 12:45 AM

NSA Can No Longer Collect Americans' Phone Records in Bulk

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Senator Rand Paul, R-KY, speaks to the press at the Senate after speaking in the chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on May 31, 2015.

Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

UPDATE: It’s official. As of midnight, the National Security Agency is no longer allowed to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk. The lapse will likely be brief though as everyone sees it as inevitable that a recently approved House bill will make it through the Senate. Senators, many of them reluctantly, voted 77-17 to move forward with the House bill on Sunday but presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul was able to delay final approval of the bill at least until Tuesday, reports the Washington Post.

Paul declared victory even while acknowledging the House bill would pass. “The point we wanted to make is, we can still catch terrorists using the Constitution,” he said. “I’m supportive of the part that ends bulk collection by the government. My concern is that we might be exchanging bulk collection by the government [with] bulk collection by the phone companies.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, was forced to carry out a “remarkable retreat” in his shift to supporting the House bill that he once ferociously opposed, notes the Associated Press. "It's not ideal but, along with votes on some modest amendments that attempt to ensure the program can actually work as promised, it's now the only realistic way forward," McConnell said.

Paul may have declared victory but his fellow Republicans were none too happy with their fellow senator. “Indiana Sen. Dan Coats’ criticism was perhaps the most biting,” notes Politico. “He accused the senator of ‘lying’ about the matter in order to raise money for his presidential campaign, according to three people who attended the meeting.”

Original post at 6:32 p.m.: It looks like a done deal. At least for now, controversial anti-terror measures that were approved after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks look set to expire at midnight on Sunday. The Senate is meeting in a rare Sunday session to try to extend the national security surveillance programs, but there is no obvious solution in sight. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas appeared to be the first to recognize the reality, saying the program will “go dark” at midnight. If there is no agreement before midnight, the National Security Agency would no longer have authority to collect bulk telephone metadata, a program that was first made public by Edward Snowden. Two other provisions are also set to expire: “[One], so far unused, helps track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power; the second allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continually discard their cellphones,” details the Associated Press.

Senators really have one option to keep the measures going past midnight, which involves approving a bill that was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month. But that doesn’t seem likely, largely due to one man—presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul. Over the weekend, Paul sent an email to supporters in which he vowed to “force the expiration of the N.S.A. illegal spying program,” notes the New York Times.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring the U.S.A. Freedom Act back up for a vote. He doesn’t like the bill but appears willing to support it, as Republicans hope they can get some amendments in the wording of the measure and send it back to the House. “With or without amendments” though, the U.S.A. Freedom Act “could be approved as early as Tuesday or Wednesday,” notes Politico.

President Obama has urged lawmakers to “put politics aside” and pass the bill. The Washington Post explains the main points of the legislation that was approved in the House:

It would carry out a goal that Obama announced nearly 1 1/2 years ago: to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata. Under the bill, the agency would stop future gathering of billions of call records — times, dates and durations. Instead, the phone companies would be required to adapt their systems so that they can be queried for records of specific terrorist suspects based on individual court orders. The bill also would renew other expiring investigative powers that the FBI says are critical.

Action on the bill, though, has been blocked from both extremes of the debate; those who want stronger reforms and those who want the surveillance programs to remain intact have objected to the legislation.

Earlier in the day, CIA Director John Brennan said expiration of the surveillance programs would make the country less safe to terrorist attacks. “Unfortunately, I think that there has been a little too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have skewed the debate on this issue. But these tools are important to American lives,” Brennan told CBS News. “These are very important authorities that have not been abused by the government. These are authorities that have been used by the government to make sure that we’re able to safeguard Americans.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.