US Senate in reform race to beat spying powers deadline

Lawmakers tussle on NSA’s bulk phone collection before authority expires

The US Senate is facing intense pressure to enact a law maintaining the power to track telephone calls as part of counterterrorism efforts before the authority expires on Monday.

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the USA Freedom Act, a new law that would change a provision in the Patriot Act passed after the September 11th, 2001, attacks, that allows the National Security Agency to sweep up telephone records belonging to everyday Americans in bulk.

Civil liberties

The collection of metadata – numbers, times and call duration – has been at the centre of a struggle between civil libertarians opposed to government intrusion in the private lives of individuals, and those concerned about security.

The fight over the sweeping domestic spying powers, revealed in media leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has moved to the Senate where majority leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans want Patriot Act bulk collection extended until 2020.

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The Senate broke for a week on Saturday, after the Freedom Act, which is backed by President Barack Obama, fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold to pass. Mr McConnell has asked senators to return on Sunday afternoon to debate the Bill ahead of the deadline at midnight on Sunday.

Mr McConnell and fellow Republican senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, have argued phone firms – which, under the Act, would collect the bulk data – are not equipped to handle it.

Negotiations have been ongoing during the recess to find a compromise amid warnings from law enforcement officials about the risks to security from allowing the powers expire.

US attorney general Loretta Lynch said inaction by the Senate would cause "a serious lapse" in ability to protect Americans. Mr Obama urged US lawmakers "to work though this recess and identify a way to get this [USA Freedom Act] done".

Libertarian senator Rand Paul, one of eight declared Republican presidential candidates and the most vocal critic of bulk collection, has objected to the measure continuing under either Act. Opposition from the Kentucky senator, who spoke for 10 hours in the Senate last week against bulk phone collection, and his Democratic allies, could push debate into next week, causing the bulk collection measures to lapse.

Freedom Act

Law professor

Peter Swire

, a privacy expert at

Georgia Tech

who sat on Mr Obama’s group that reviewed bulk collection in 2013, told

The Irish Times

allowing the measures expire would complicate reform. He called the USA Freedom Act “the best answer”. “Any Bill can be improved but I fear senator Paul’s action will lead to weaker reform. He quite possibly is throwing away the best opportunity for reform now,” he said.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, another Republican presidential hopeful in 2016, this week accused Mr Paul of "siding with" Snowden, whom he called a "criminal".

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent