The National Security Agency has lost its authority to collect bulk phone data after the Senate failed to renew key sections of the U.S. Patriot Act before its midnight deadline today.
The Senate had convened an emergency session Sunday night to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act — which would prevent any lapse in NSA authority — but the effort was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), a vocal opponent of NSA programs.
Paul kept the Senate from putting in place an emergency extension of the NSA’s authority by refusing to waive the long, drawn-out procedural steps that are part of the process. The lengthy procedure can be bypassed, but only if all 100 senators agree to do so.
This means the surveillance program, which has been deemed by the NSA and other government agencies as crucial in the fight against terrorism, will be out of commission until the Senate can wade through all of the red tape.
The Senate did, however, overwhelmingly endorse a bill reforming the way the National Security Agency conducts its surveillance.
In a 77-17 vote, the Senate gave the green light to enable the chamber to begin debate on the USA Freedom Act, a bill backed by the U.S. president himself. If made law, the Act would enable 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 Senate is not expected to vote on if it will pass the Freedom Act — which extends the existing surveillance program for six months while the new system is set up — until at least mid-week.
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.
Still, even those opposed to the bill believe it will be approved. Rand, himself, was quoted by Reuters as saying “this bill will ultimately pass,” despite his efforts to block it.