6 January 2015, GPO: US Congress: Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015 (USA FREEDOM Act) (PDF)

U.S. Spy Architecture Pared Back as Part of Patriot Act Expires

Lawmakers in Senate, House spar over how long transition from NSA to phone firms should take

By Damian Paletta and Kristina Peterson

June 1, 2015

WASHINGTON--The expiration of several government-surveillance programs triggered a congressional scramble to restore spy powers Monday, but political divisions hardened as lawmakers warred over privacy measures.

The National Security Agency stopped sweeping up bulk telephone records at 7:44 p.m. Sunday, a senior intelligence official said, several hours before the midnight deadline under which the program lapsed.

The program had secretly warehoused the phone records of millions of Americans since at least 2006. In tandem, counterterrorism officials lost the power to use roving wire taps on terrorism suspects. Both programs used the USA Patriot Act of 2001 as their legal underpinnings.

The changes mark a contraction of the sprawling and secret spy architecture built up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Congress's split reflects a sharp public and political shift following disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden two years ago. The leaks revealed a number of secret government surveillance practices, such as the bulk telephone record program, which unnerved many lawmakers and sparked calls for limits on the reach of spies.

When the spy powers expired Sunday evening, the Senate agreed to advance a House bill called the USA Freedom Act. That measure, if passed this week, would restore the roving wire taps but end the bulk telephone program, replacing it with a new framework that would allow counterterrorism officials to quickly obtain phone records from phone companies on a case-by-case basis.

But the deal showed signs of cracking Monday, as Senate Republicans planned to introduce a change that would lengthen the transition of the surveillance program from the NSA to the phone companies over 12 months. The House bill called for six months, while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R., N.C.) had originally wanted two years.

"Hopefully our friends in the House will see 12 months as a good agreement between the two bodies," Mr. Burr, an architect of the change, said Monday.

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, as well as two other key lawmakers, Monday rejected the proposed changes. The House easily passed its measure in a bipartisan vote of 338-88 last month.

"These amendments only serve to weaken the House-passed bill and postpone timely enactment of legislation that responsibly protects national security while enhancing civil liberty protections," the four lawmakers said in a statement. "The House is not likely to accept the changes proposed."

The government now enters an uncertain period of counterterrorism policy, as Americans remain split on how to balance calls for national security and civil liberties. Meanwhile, the expanding reach of Islamic State militants, both in the Middle East and beyond, has heightened warnings from counterterrorism officials that more surveillance is needed to prevent a domestic terror attack.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, "The Senate's failure to act introduces unnecessary risk to the country and to our citizens."

U.S. intelligence officials have said that they would work within existing law to try to compensate for new blind spots, but that they now have fewer tools to monitor threats.

Privacy advocates, however, said the short-term impact of the expiration would be less severe.

"The intelligence agencies have numerous other authorities at their disposal and have ample authority to collect information about people who may be planning a terrorist attack," said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bulk telephone program is likely the first legislative casualty of Mr. Snowden's leaks, a development that has worried some of the program's supporters. Some of the telephone program's original architects have said the government bungled the public relations response that followed Mr. Snowden's leaks by failing to properly explain the data's value, but they have warned that the phone records are too important to be lost.

"If you lose that capability and we get hit with an attack...we didn't do the American people right," said retired Gen. Keith Alexander, who was running the NSA at the time of the Snowden leaks. Gen. Alexander made the comments at a recent Washington event.

The expiration of the Patriot Act provisions is expected to fuel other policy debates in Washington, particularly as technology companies work to shield communications from government spy programs. Technology companies are currently designing ways to bolster encryption software to prevent intelligence agencies from spying on texts or emails, something that law-enforcement officials have said could lead to a dangerous precedent.

Write to Damian Paletta at and Kristina Peterson at