NSA spy pro­gram shuts down

The bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­i­cans’ phone data stops as the Se­nate is un­able to strike a deal.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mascaro

WASH­ING­TON — Af­ter 14 years and hun­dreds of mil­lions of records of Amer­i­cans’ tele­phone calls, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency stopped bulk col­lec­tion of phone data Sun­day, of­fi­cials said, as legal author­ity for the once-se­cret pro­gram ex­pired.

The move came as the Se­nate stalled on ef­forts to re­form the agency’s author­ity. The por­tion of the 2006 Pa­triot Act amend­ments that the NSA has ar­gued al­lows col­lec­tion of tele­phone call­ing data and other records ex­pired at mid­night in Wash­ing­ton.

Late af­ter­noon Sun­day, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials said they had started shut­ting down the sys­tem for scoop­ing up and record­ing phone call data, which was put in place af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. The NSA col­lects what it calls meta­data — records that in­clude the num­bers called from a phone and the length of calls, but not the con­tent of the con­ver­sa­tions.

Of­fi­cials said they planned to shut down the pro­gram en­tirely at mid­night, although their ac­tions, which are clas­si­fied, can’t read­ily be ver­i­fied.

On Sun­day evening, the Se­nate voted 77 to 17 to ad­vance a House-passed bill that would re­form NSA sur- veil­lance. That leg­is­la­tion would end the bulk col­lec­tion of tele­phone data. Un­der it, phone com­pa­nies, not the gov­ern­ment, would hold the call data, and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies would be re­quired to have a war­rant to search it.

Un­der Se­nate rules, no fi­nal vote on that mea­sure can take place un­til later this week un­less all sen­a­tors agree. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) re­fused, ar­gu­ing that

the House bill does not go far enough to rein in the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. His move guar­an­teed that the NSA’s legal author­ity would end, at least for now. The Se­nate ap­pears likely to pass the House bill as early as Tues­day.

The lapse in the NSA’s power marks an im­por­tant mo­ment in the evolv­ing U.S. re­sponse to the threat of ter­ror­ism. It is the first ma­jor leg­isla­tive re­buff of do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions in the post-Sept. 11 era, and the most di­rect im­pact to date of the dis­clo­sures made by Ed­ward Snow­den, the for­mer NSA con­trac­tor who re­vealed the ex­is­tence of the data-col­lec­tion pro­gram two years ago.

Paul con­ceded that the House bill ul­ti­mately would pass, but raised nu­mer­ous ques­tions about whether it goes far enough to cur­tail the NSA’s author­ity. Nev­er­the­less, he de­clared a victory.

“Through my slow­ing the process down, talk­ing about the Pa­triot Act, we now will end bulk col­lec­tion of records,” said Paul, who has made op­po­si­tion to sur­veil­lance one of the cen­ter­pieces of his cam­paign for the 2016 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

“My con­cern is we might be ex­chang­ing bulk col­lec­tion by the gov­ern­ment [for] bulk col­lec­tion by the phone com­pa­nies,” he said.

Sup­port­ers of the NSA de­nounced Paul’s ac­tions. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (DCalif.), the se­nior Demo­crat on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, ac­cused him of act­ing “for his own po­lit­i­cal gain.”

“Hold­ing crit­i­cal na­tional se­cu­rity pro­grams hostage to raise po­lit­i­cal dona­tions is out­ra­geous, but that’s where we stand to­day,” Fe­in­stein said in a state­ment.

The White House called the House bill a “rea­son­able com­pro­mise” and urged the Se­nate “to en­sure this ir­re­spon­si­ble lapse in au­thor­i­ties is as short-lived as pos­si­ble.”

“On a mat­ter as crit­i­cal as our na­tional se­cu­rity, in­di­vid­ual sen­a­tors must put aside their par­ti­san mo­ti­va­tions and act swiftly,” the White House said in a state­ment from Press Sec­re­tary Josh Earnest.

De­bate over the pro­gram has sharply di­vided both the par­ties, but the split among Repub­li­cans has been the most vivid. The di­vi­sion has be­come a ma­jor el­e­ment in the party’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and a key fac­tor stalling Se­nate ac­tion.

As the process of shut­ting down the sur­veil­lance ap­pa­ra­tus be­gan, sen­a­tors re­turned to the Capitol for a rare Sun­day ses­sion fac­ing a dead­line, with no clear plan for meet­ing it.

Ten­sions spilled over quickly as Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, who is a strong sup­porter of the NSA’s sur­veil­lance ef­forts, tried to pre­vent Paul, his fel­low Repub­li­can, from speak­ing.

“This is what we fought the revo­lu­tion over,” Paul thun­dered once he was al­lowed to speak. “This is a de­bate over your right to be left alone.”

The Se­nate vis­i­tors’ gallery was packed with Paul sup­port­ers wear­ing red Tshirts.

“Peo­ple say, ‘How will we pro­tect our­selves?’ ” with­out sur­veil­lance, he said, re­spond­ing, “Use the Con­sti­tu­tion…. Get a war­rant.”

Paul sought to pin the pro­gram on the cur­rent ad- min­is­tra­tion, say­ing, “Pres­i­dent Obama set this pro­gram up.”

The pro­gram was es­tab­lished by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion with­out con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion late in 2001. In 2006, af­ter pas­sage of the Pa­triot Act amend­ments, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion won ap­proval from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which meets in se­cret, to con­tinue the pro­gram un­der the Pa­triot Act’s sec­tion 215.

Over the last two years, how­ever, the Pa­triot Act has come un­der in­creas­ing crit­i­cism from a coali­tion of lib­eral Democrats and lib­er­tar­ian-lean­ing Repub­li­cans. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion last year pro­posed end­ing the gov­ern­ment’s col­lec­tion of tele­phone data and in­stead hav­ing tele­phone com­pa­nies hold the in­for­ma­tion. Obama said, how­ever, that he would keep the cur­rent pro­gram in­tact un­til Congress acted on an al­ter­na­tive.

An ef­fort last year to re­form the NSA’s au­thor­i­ties also stalled in the Se­nate.

A fed­eral ap­peals court this spring ruled that the Pa­triot Act did not pro­vide legal author­ity for the col­lec­tion of mil­lions of tele­phone records. But not­ing that the law was about to ex­pire, the judges said they would put their rul­ing on hold for a few weeks while Congress de­bated whether to re­new it.

The House passed its bill, the USA Free­dom Act, in mid-May to limit the NSA’s pow­ers. That bill has sup­port from the ad­min­is­tra­tion and a broad bi­par­ti­san swath of sen­a­tors, but had been blocked in the Se­nate by Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He and other de­fense hawks in the GOP wanted to keep the pro­gram run­ning as is, with­out changes.

McConnell reversed course Sun­day and voted to ad­vance the House bill.

On the other side, a group of sen­a­tors led by Paul and Demo­crat Ron Wy­den (D-Ore.) have pushed to rein in the NSA.

“I be­lieve that drag­net sur­veil­lance vi­o­lates the rights of mil­lions of our peo­ple ev­ery day,” said Wy­den, who joined all Democrats in vot­ing to ad­vance the House-passed re­form bill.

Although McConnell backs the pres­i­den­tial bid of Paul, his fel­low Ken­tucky se­na­tor, the two are at odds on the sur­veil­lance is­sue. Speak­ing Sun­day, McConnell re­ferred bit­terly to “dem­a­goguery” and a “cam­paign of mis­in­for­ma­tion” re­gard­ing the NSA pro­gram, although he did not iden­tify any­one as re­spon­si­ble.

Ten­sion ran high at a closed-door party meet­ing Sun­day evening, which Paul said he pur­pose­fully avoided.

Paul’s stance has drawn sharp re­buke from sev­eral ri­vals for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. On Sun­day, Jeb Bush, the for­mer Florida gover­nor, said that the na­tion’s se­cu­rity would be at risk if the Se­nate failed to reau­tho­rize the law, which his brother en­acted as pres­i­dent. “There’s no ev­i­dence, not a shred of ev­i­dence, that the meta­data pro­gram has vi­o­lated any­body’s civil lib­er­ties,” Bush said, speak­ing on “Face the Na­tion.”

Sen. Marco Ru­bio (RFla.) joined Paul in op­pos­ing the House-passed bill Sun­day. Fel­low Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas voted in fa­vor, as did Sen. Bernie San­ders, the Ver­mont in­de­pen­dent who is run­ning for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion.

Two other parts of the Pa­triot Act that are set to ex­pire would limit other as­pects of the NSA’s sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions that have been less con­tested. Those in­clude the “lone wolf ” pro­vi­sion, which al­lows the gov­ern­ment to ap­ply for court per­mis­sion to wire­tap an in­di­vid­ual sus­pected of ter­ror ac­tiv­i­ties who is not part of a larger group, and an­other that al­lows the gov­ern­ment to con­duct “rov­ing wire­taps” as sus­pects switch phones.

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