Spy court renews NSA metadata program

With a surveillance reform bill stuck in the Senate, the federal court overseeing spy agencies on Friday reauthorized the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

Reauthorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) allows the NSA to continue to warrantlessly collect “metadata” in bulk about people’s phone calls. The records contain information about which numbers people called, when and how long they talked, but not the actual content of their conversations.

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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 said in a joint statement, referring to the section of the Patriot Act that authorizes the program.

The House passed a bill to end the bulk collection program earlier this year, and instead allow the federal government to search for specific records in phone companies' databases with a court order. Privacy advocates balked, however, warning that the legislation was too broad and would have allowed the NSA to conduct searches for every number in a certain area code, for instance, or every Verizon subscriber.

Since then, lawmakers in the Senate have spent months hashing out a bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyDems delay Senate panel vote on Supreme Court nominee Dem senator 'not inclined to filibuster' Gorsuch Dems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges MORE (D-Vt.) introduced a new version of the USA Freedom Act earlier this summer. It has managed to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as privacy advocates, technology companies and the Obama administration.

“The Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence support this legislation and believe that it reflects a reasonable compromise that preserves essential intelligence community capabilities, enhances privacy and civil liberties, and increases transparency,” the two agencies said on Friday.

Some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have opposed the bill, however, warning that it would cut the legs out from under the nation’s spies.

The Senate has yet to take action on the legislation and it could face an uphill fight amid a busy legislative calender.

In a statement on Saturday morning, Leahy said that lawmakers should pass his bill and "ensure that this is the last time the government requests and the court approves the bulk collection of Americans' records.

"We cannot wait any longer, and we cannot defer action on this important issue until the next Congress," he added. "This announcement underscores, once again, that it is time for Congress to enact meaningful reforms to protect individual privacy.”

The NSA’s phone records program needs to be reauthorized by the FISC every 90 days. The current authority expires on Dec. 5.

This post was updated on Sept. 13 at 12:42 p.m.