Spy court clears path to renewing NSA powers

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The secretive federal court that oversees the nation’s spies is laying the groundwork for temporarily reauthorizing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) sweeping collection of U.S. phone records.

In an order released on Friday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said that a brief lapse in some Patriot Act provisions would not bar the court from renewing the NSA's powers. Although the court asserted its ability to renew the controversial NSA program, it has yet to issue an order giving a green light to the spy agency.

The court also decided that it doesn’t need the advice of a new expert panel, in its first ever opportunity to use the friend-of-the-court analysis.

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Earlier this month, President Obama signed the US Freedom Act, giving the NSA six months to end its bulk phone records collection. The program picks up metadata about which numbers people dial, how long their conversation last and when the calls occurred — but not the actual conversations.

Passage of the law, however, came after Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulLibertarian ticket will get super-PAC support Overnight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Overnight Regulation: GOP slams new Obama education rules MORE (R-Ky.) forced a two-day lapse of parts of the Patriot Act, drawing attention to the GOP presidential candidate's opposition to NSA powers and dealing a humiliating setback for Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellHillary's ObamaCare problem In House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ MORE (R-Ky.), who has endorsed his White House bid.

Before temporarily renewing the NSA’s powers, as the Obama administration urged the court to do this month, the judges first need to decide whether that temporary lapse forced any permanent changes in the law.

In the Friday order, Judge F. Dennis Saylor wrote that it “has the authority to grant the applications and issue the requested orders.”

While it has yet to formally authorize the NSA's collection of phone metadata, most analysts expect that decision to be forthcoming.

To reach its conclusion, the court declared that it did not need the advice of a new expert panel created to weigh in on “novel or significant interpretation[s] of the law.”

That decision is not particularly surprising, but it is noteworthy because it was the first chance for the court to turn to the new panel. Without the input of the expert panel, the court only hears arguments from the government.