Technology

With deadline looming, Obama renews NSA program

The Obama administration on Friday received court reauthorization for a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program, weeks before a legal deadline will force Congress to act.

The government this week filed a request with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, as it must do every 90 days to keep the program active. 

{mosads}The current approval will be the final one before the portion of the Patriot Act undergirding the contested program expires. By June 1, Congress either needs to reauthorize the existing law, replace it or allow the program to expire — which officials say would badly damage national security.

The program allows the NSA to collect phone metadata, such as information about who called whom and when, but not actual content of their conversations. Supporters say that information can be critical for connecting the dots to thwart terrorists, but critics say that it has never been as singularly useful as proponents say. 

After the once-secret program was revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, President Obama made a few minor reforms to the program and urged Congress to make sweeping changes that would effectively end the NSA’s collection of the data and require officials to obtain specific records from phone companies only after obtaining a court order.

So far, it has failed to do so. Last year, one bill came just two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate. 

Now, time is running out.

“Congress has a limited window before the June 1 sunset to enact legislation that would implement the president’s proposed path forward for the telephony metadata program, while preserving key intelligence authorities,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement late on Friday afternoon. “The administration continues to stand ready to work with the Congress on such legislation and would welcome the opportunity to do so.” 

The deadline could lead to a tense standoff in Congress between a bipartisan coalition of hawks and civil libertarians.

Lawmakers as ideologically diverse as Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined forces on the bill last year, though they ran into opposition from GOP leaders. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also opposed the bill last year, the only Democrat to do so.

Civil liberties advocates had urged the Obama administration to end the program on its own by simply ceasing to seek court authorization, but it has repeatedly declined to do that. 

“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 reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the president directed [last] January,” the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a joint statement.  

Tags Al Franken Bill Nelson National Security Agency Patriot Act Ted Cruz

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