Obama renews NSA spying program after reform bill fails

The Obama administration announced on Monday that it has renewed a controversial spying program that would have been ended under legislation that was blocked by a Senate filibuster.

The move came amid opposition from critics of the National Security Agency’s program; they have urged President Obama to abandon the controversial phone records program on his own, since the reform bill failed in Congress two weeks ago.

“Given that legislation has not yet been enacted, and given the importance of maintaining the capabilities of the telephony metadata program, the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the president directed in January,” the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a joint statement.

Last week's order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court renews the agency’s ability to collect and search Americans’ phone records. Under the program, the NSA collects metadata — such as the numbers of incoming and outgoing calls, and the length of time that the conversation lasted — but not the actual content of conversations.

In keeping with changes Obama announced in January, the new order requires the spy agency to get a court order before searching the database and limits the searches to phone numbers two “hops” — or connections — away from a target, instead of the previous rule of three.

The USA Freedom Act, which died in the Senate last month, would have ended the program and required the agency to get records from phone companies after obtaining a court order, among other changes.

Despite the failure of the bill, civil libertarians had urged the administration not to ask for a new order from the spy court as an interim step.

Since the administration supported reform, officials have said, it should be able to make the temporary change now.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas Gretchen Carlson to testify before Congress Senior Verizon exec believes hack will affect Yahoo deal MORE (D-Vt.), who authored the USA Freedom Act, said on Thursday that deciding not to ask for renewal would be “an important first step.” 

“It seems like there’s a general acknowledgement from the intelligence agency and the administration that it is possible ... not to do this mass collection and still retain intelligence capabilities,” said Neema Guliani, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“But despite that acknowledgement, despite questions over whether the program works, they still continue to go forward asking for authorization from the [surveillance court] to conduct this mass collection of call records.”

“That’s really the bizarre paradox of their position.”

News of the renewal came as arguments were made in a closely watched case about the constitutionality of the program.

On Monday, an appeals court in Seattle is hearing arguments in a case challenging whether the NSA program violates the constitutional right to privacy. The case is one of three currently pending on the issue, and many analysts suspect it to ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.