NSA Snooping Faces Shutdown as Senate Convenes Sunday

The US Senate is taking the unprecedented step of holding a Sunday session, as US intelligence programs face a major interruption.

An expiration of the National Security Agency (NSA) program for bulk data collection is looming; if the Senate fails to act by midnight on Sunday, the program that allows US spy agencies to collect metadata on telephone calls will be shut down.

And in fact, the de facto deadline is earlier: If an extension of the program isn’t granted by 8 pm on Sunday, the NSA will begin shutting down software and severing the pipes to telecom providers that make the bulk collection possible.

The Patriot Act’s Section 215 has been used to justify the authorization of dragnet-style data collection on the part of the NSA, as a tool in its efforts to identify and track down terrorist threats. Under a program first disclosed to the public by Edward Snowden, the US spy agency has systematically collected bulk metadata on millions of Americans' calls—including the numbers called and duration (but no actual conversational content). It has argued that such collection is necessary in the event that counter-terrorism measures require analysis of the data. That’s the program that is set to sunset on Sunday night.

"Without action from the Senate, we will experience a serious lapse in our ability to protect the American people," Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned on Wednesday. "Today, I join the President in urging the Senate to work through the current recess in order to make sure that we can continue to appropriately safeguard this country and protect its citizens.”

The expiration will also affect the NSA’s ability to collect business, bank and hotel information on individuals—a function that’s used around 200 times a year—as well as roving wiretaps (used less than 100 times per year), which allow the tracing of people who change cell phones in quick succession (as criminals often do).

Senate Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are looking for a broadly acceptable bipartisan compromise that could pass each chamber. But for now, a reauthorization appears to be out of the question—in part thanks to his own party.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has vowed to oppose even a reformed version or short-term extension of the data-collection plan, which he calls unconstitutional and illegal. Last weekend, the senator mounted a filibuster of sorts, along with Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.) and Sen. Martin Heinrich, (D-N.M.), which resulted in the USA Freedom Act failing to pass the Senate last Saturday morning. The Freedom Act would have ended the bulk data collection program, instead tasking telecom providers with making the information available to the NSA and law enforcement only under very narrow parameters approved by a court.

The opposing senators are backed up in their concerns by another branch of government. Earlier this year, a US appeals court ruled that the mass collection is illegal and exceeds the scope of what Congress authorized in the Patriot Act.

Even if lawmakers reach an agreement on Sunday, both the House and the Senate will need to approve the legislation next week, virtually guaranteeing a program lapse. One White House official characterized Congress as playing “National Security Russian Roulette” by not acting sooner, allowing dangerous interruptions to terrorist tracking.

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