The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

NSA Loses Power to Collect Phone Data — At Least for Now

The NSA has lost its authority to collect data on U.S. citizens. For now.

463262661

Two years after Edward Snowden spilled the National Security Agency’s secrets to the world, the agency late Sunday night lost the authority to collect data on the phone calls of tens of millions of Americans. For now.

During a rare Sunday session, the Senate advanced a House bill that would alter the NSA’s authority on how it collects bulk phone data on Americans. Under the lower chamber’s legislation, this data would be stored by a third party, not the government.

But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a 2016 GOP presidential contender and fierce libertarian, on Sunday evening blocked a vote that would make the bill U.S. law. That means the NSA’s authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the agency uses to sweep up the phone records of tens of millions of Americans, expired at midnight. The authority for two lesser-known programs — one that allows the FBI to track so-called “lone-wolf” terrorists, and a second that allows the NSA to eavesdrop on subjects who continually discard cell phones — also expired when the clock struck 12:00 a.m.

Two years after Edward Snowden spilled the National Security Agency’s secrets to the world, the agency late Sunday night lost the authority to collect data on the phone calls of tens of millions of Americans. For now.

During a rare Sunday session, the Senate advanced a House bill that would alter the NSA’s authority on how it collects bulk phone data on Americans. Under the lower chamber’s legislation, this data would be stored by a third party, not the government.

But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a 2016 GOP presidential contender and fierce libertarian, on Sunday evening blocked a vote that would make the bill U.S. law. That means the NSA’s authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the agency uses to sweep up the phone records of tens of millions of Americans, expired at midnight. The authority for two lesser-known programs — one that allows the FBI to track so-called “lone-wolf” terrorists, and a second that allows the NSA to eavesdrop on subjects who continually discard cell phones — also expired when the clock struck 12:00 a.m.

Paul admitted his victory is likely to be temporary, saying Sunday night that the “bill will ultimately pass” once lawmakers reconsider it this week. But, if only for a short time, the upstart Kentucky lawmaker managed to limit the NSA’s once-unchecked powers with two simple words: “I object.”

President Barack Obama and some intelligence hawks in the Senate argue limiting the NSA’s ability to collect data on Americans makes the country more vulnerable to terror attacks; the White House viewed the disingenuously-named USA Freedom Act as a compromise that would allow the NSA to keep monitoring U.S. data but under different conditions.

But officials within the intelligence community, including former NSA director Keith Alexander, have admitted the program never yielded much actionable intelligence.

The 77-to-17 vote to move the bill forward is a stunning turnabout in the upper chamber. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who tried to push through a two-month extension of the authorities to give lawmakers more time to negotiate, was able to stop it from moving forward. McConnell, like Obama, believes the program helps to keep the country safe from terrorists.

The Senate agreeing to vote on the bill allows Paul the opportunity to position himself as a champion of American privacy, an issue important to his libertarian base and many Americans concerned that personal information ends up in government hands. It’s also a blow to the Obama administration, which has loudly lobbied Congress to pass the legislation.

The unusual Sunday session is the latest in the two-year, stop-and-go legislative effort to reform the American surveillance apparatus after Snowden revealed the vast extent to it. It’s made strange bedfellows, uniting civil liberty groups like the ACLU with the Tea Party. Left-leaning Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an Obama supporter on most issues, is also opposing the USA Freedom Act.

On May 7 a federal court found the data collection program illegal but left the door open for Congress to change U.S. law to allow it. The bill Paul is blocking, which passed overwhelmingly in the House, was an effort to do this.

Differences over how the United States should spy have not been limited to American shores. Snowden’s revelations have upended the international spy game. Once private disputes over allies spying on allies are now settled in the public sphere. The disgruntled NSA worker’s leaks have also threatened to derail U.S. relations with Germany, a country whose public is against surveillance but whose government has been complicit with NSA efforts.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.

un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration

The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?