(photo credit: REUTERS)
The debate in the US over how much the National Security Agency should spy on American’s telephone records and other data entered a new phase midnight on Sunday when the legal authority for the controversial programs ended.
Obama administration and top US intelligence officials have warned that allowing such a lapse could endanger their ability to protect the country’s national security. The lapse may signal a shift in Americans’ attitudes toward fighting terrorism that could indirectly hurt Israeli efforts to combat the scourge.
Critics of the now defunct NSA spy program had said it had gone much too far in violating privacy rights and civil liberties, that the checks on abuse of the spying powers were ineffective and that the program had not racked up sufficient successes to justify its wide reach.
Despite the drama of the program ending, virtually all American officials expect a new, more moderate, version to pass within days since it has passed initial votes in both houses of Congress and has firm support from the US president.
The Freedom Act would end spy agencies’ bulk collection of domestic telephone “metadata” and replace it with a more targeted system.
This week’s historic clashes over the issue are the culmination of two years of public debate that started with revelation of the program’s existence by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Although the Senate’s 77-17 vote in favor of the compromise USA Freedom Act did not come in time to keep the program from expiring, the vote was at least a partial victory for President Barack Obama, who had pushed for the reform measure as a way to address privacy concerns while preserving a tool to protect the country from attack.
The bill passed the US House on a 338-88 vote on May 13.
But final Senate passage was delayed until at least Tuesday by objections from US Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
The termination of aspects of the post-September 11, 2001, law known as the USA Patriot Act meant that law enforcement and security agencies lost authority for various programs.
Those allowed for “roving wiretaps” aimed at terrorism suspects who use multiple disposable cellphones; permitted authorities to target “lone wolf” suspects with no connection to specific terrorist groups, and made it easier to seize personal and business records of suspects and their associates.
The new bill could directly impact Israeli national security by reducing the speed at which the NSA shares data with Israel’s NSA-equivalent, IDF Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200, responsible for signal intelligence.
The indirect affect may even be greater, with many officials noting that Israel often follows the US on anti-terrorism policies, and a weaker stomach for aggressive policies in the US could portend the same for Israel.
Finally, Israeli officials often cite examples of post-September 11, 2001, US anti-terrorism policies in international forums to defend their policies.
The Senate abruptly reversed course during a rare Sunday session to let the bill go ahead, after Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly acknowledged that Paul had stymied his efforts to extend unchanged for five years the Patriot Act’s provisions, without the need for the compromise bill.
Though temporary authorities may cover the legal gap period for a few days, the White House issued a statement calling on the Senate to “put aside partisan motivations and act swiftly.”
The measure could face more debate in Congress, including on whether the existing program will be temporarily extended for six or 12 months.
At the heart of how long to extend the current program is an additional debate about how fast the programs can be switched over to functioning within new limits, including the NSA perhaps developing the software for telephone companies to store massive amounts of data themselves.
Until now, the NSA directly accessed the data when it claimed it had legal grounds, or got fasttrack permission from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, without having to request the data from the telephone companies, as it would under the compromise bill.
Republicans have been deeply divided on the issue. Security hawks want the NSA program to continue as is, and libertarians like Paul want to kill it altogether.
Civil liberties groups feel the compromise Freedom Act does not go far enough in protecting privacy.
“Congress should take advantage of this sunset to pass far-reaching surveillance reform, instead of the weak bill currently under consideration,” Michael Macleod- Ball, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said.