Congress to take up changes to spy surveillance law

Ken Dilanian
Associated Press

Washington — However Congress resolves its impasse over government surveillance, this much is clear: The National Security Agency will ultimately be out of the business of collecting and storing Americans’ calling records.

Aiming for passage Tuesday afternoon, the Senate on Monday prepared to make modest changes to a House bill that would end the collection while preserving other surveillance authorities. But while Congress debated, the law authorizing the collection expired at midnight Sunday.

The NSA had stopped gathering the records from phone companies hours before the deadline. And other post-9/11 surveillance provisions considered more effective than the phone-call collection program also lapsed, leading intelligence officials to warn of critical gaps.

The legislation now before the Senate, known as the USA Freedom Act, would reauthorize the surveillance but would phase out NSA phone records collection over time. It passed the House overwhelmingly and is backed by President Barack Obama. Sen. Rand Paul, who doesn’t believe it goes far enough in restricting the government, objected anew on Monday, but the Kentucky Republican lawmaker who helped triggger the gridlock can’t stop a vote to end debate scheduled for Tuesday morning.

While Paul sought to capitalize on his position, House-passed legislation was stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans sought changes.

In a rare Sunday session, they abandoned their opposition to the House bill in the face of exhortations by the president and senior intelligence officials to pass it quickly.

If the bill becomes law over the next few days, the NSA will resume gathering the phone records but only for a transition period of six months, in the House version, or a year in the Senate version.

If the bill fails amid congressional politics, the collection cannot resume, period.

The turn of events is a victory for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who disclosed the phone records collection in 2013. Senators on the intelligence committee had been issuing veiled and vague warnings about the program for years, saying if Americans only knew how the Patriot Act was being interpreted they would be outraged.

Because of Snowden, “people have some more insight into exactly how they are being spied upon and how the law has been twisted to authorize mass surveillance of people who have no connection to a crime or terrorism,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group that supports the USA Freedom Act.

If the legislation fails and the surveillance provisions expire, that would be a blow to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.