The National Security Agency is in limbo after the Senate this weekend failed to renew its controversial surveillance program.
The Senate recessed Saturday without voting to approve an extension of provisions of the USA Patriot Act. The Act and two other anti-terror programs, which are set to expire June 1, have been deemed by the NSA and other government agencies as crucial in the fight against terrorism.
National security officials told Bloomberg that the U.S. faces “considerable risk and uncertainty” until the Act is renewed.
Earlier in the same session, the Senate nixed the USA Freedom Act, a reform bill backed by the U.S. president himself that enabled the NSA to collect bulk phone data, but with restrictions in place to protect the privacy of Americans while still giving the government access to the information necessary to safeguard national security.
Under the Act, bulk records would remain in the possession of the phone companies. This would mean the NSA would require permission from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge to access data. The judge would also approve only specific numbers for such queries.
“The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the White House said in a statement backing the legislation last year.
While proponents of the bill described it as the perfect way to preserve Americans’ privacy while still giving the NSA the tools it needs, critics have said the legislation only serves to impede the spy agency in its efforts.
The Senate will reconvene May 31 to again vote on a Patriot Act extension. But that in itself will not ensure the continuation of the program — the House must also approve the extension and it is not set to meet until after the June 1 deadline. This means even with Senate approval, the NSA’s phone-data collection could be dead in the water — at least for a while.
The Senate, at its May 31 session, will also revisit the Freedom Act.