Court renews NSA phone program

 

The federal court overseeing the country’s spy agencies renewed an order Friday allowing the National Security Agency to collect phone records of people in the United States.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s renewal of the contested program, authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, comes as lawmakers continue to debate reform legislation.

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“Given that legislation has not yet been enacted, and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities of the Section 215 telephony metadata program, the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program,” the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a joint statement.

The NSA’s bulk collection of phone "metadata," such as which numbers people dial and how long they talk, was one of the most controversial programs revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer. The program requires renewal by the secretive spy court every 90 days.

Some privacy advocates have urged the Obama administration not to ask for reauthorization while Congress debates a measure to effectively end the program.

The program is “not effective,” “unconstitutional” and “has been misused,” more than two-dozen groups wrote in a letter this week. 

Administration officials have said that the program is necessary to track terrorists and foreign agents and have rejected calls to end or significantly reform the program without legislation from Congress. 

The program’s renewal, which was officially issued on Thursday but unclassified on Friday, expires on Sept. 12.

The House last month passed the USA Freedom Act to end the phone records program, but that bill is still working its way through the Senate. Multiple reform advocates have worried that it does not go far enough.

The bill would end the NSA program and require government agents to get a court order before searching private phone companies’ storehouses of phone records, a move endorsed by President Obama earlier this year.

“Overall, the bill’s significant reforms would provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system, while ensuring our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the Nation,” the Justice Department and ODNI explained.

Critics on both sides of the aisle, however, have worried that compromise language in the version passed by the House could still allow NSA agents to grab vast amounts of records in one sweep, such as those of every resident in a single ZIP code or all subscribers of a particular phone company like Verizon. 

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