This week, a U.S. spy agency is reportedly winding down its collection of Americans’ telephone records after Congress failed to reform or extend the once-secret program that expires June 1.
Lawmakers left Washington for a weeklong recess without addressing the National Security Agency’s snooping capabilities, and it is not clear whether any measure to remedy the situation can pass both chambers when Congress reconvenes.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced deep concerns before the chamber adjourned Saturday.
“This is a high-threat period and we know what’s going on overseas. We know what’s been tried here at home,” said McConnell. “My colleagues – do we really want this law to expire?”
Moments earlier, senators defeated a last-gasp effort to extend the NSA’s bulk data collection program by two months.
Republican Rand Paul had advocated the program's demise during more than 10 hours of remarks on the Senate floor.
“Every American is somehow said to be under suspicion because we are collecting the records of every American,” said Paul. “There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate, and liberty and privacy to suffer.”
Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, has been tapping into public outrage sparked in 2013, when fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the program.
President Barack Obama has said phone records should stay with telecommunications companies unless the government obtains a court order to review them. A bill to do just that passed the House of Representatives but was voted down in the Senate, where many Republicans cited national security concerns.
“I would suggest first and foremost that it’s reasonable that the government be able to identify evidence that could prevent a 9/11 attack that could cause the deaths of thousands of Americans,” said Senator Jeff Sessions.
Legislative disarray on domestic spying shows Congress is out-of-step with the American public, according to Democrat Patrick Leahy.
“I don’t care what state you are in, if you ask Americans: do you want bulk collection of all your phone records? You know what the answer would be: of course not,” said Leahy.
The Senate will return from recess a day early to try, once again, to pass some sort of NSA bill hours before the June 1 deadline. Even if they succeed, House Speaker John Boehner is making no promises on what his chamber might do.
“The House has acted, it’s time for the Senate to act. If they act, we will certainly look at what they do and make a decision about how to proceed,” said Boehner.
The NSA has been collecting phone records under a section of the Patriot Act, a law enacted after the attacks of September 11, 2001 that grants the U.S. government broad powers to probe and prevent terrorist plots.
A federal appeals court recently ruled the program illegal. Its constitutionality ultimately could be decided by the Supreme Court unless Congress reforms it.