The US Senate has blocked an extension to key elements of the Patriot Act, which consequently ran out at midnight Sunday night. So, as of Monday the NSA can no longer routinely collect American’s phone calls in bulk and the FBI is prevented from using the Act to start a new investigation and tap a suspects phone, and/or any phone the suspect subsequently uses.
This in indeed a change in the law and it reflects the mood in the USA that in the years after 9/11 too many individual freedoms were lost in the name of security. Instead new legislation is expected this week, which will mean the government cannot store, and then trawl through, telephone records. Instead it must apply to the phone companies through a legal process if it wants to access data.
However, missing from the headlines about curtailing the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection are the words ‘Grandfather clause’. Using this clause any investigation into suspected terrorist activity, which began before Jun 1st can continue if the Justice Dept triggers it.
However, if today the security agencies identify a new suspect they believe may be planning an act of terrorism they cannot use the Patriots Act’s sweeping powers.
The White House reacted by saying “We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible…The American people deserve nothing less.”
This state of affairs is likely to only last a few days before Congress passes new legislation. It is likely that the security agencies will then be required to subpoena a telephone company, which could take several days, and only then look at who the suspect had been calling and taking calls from. The security agencies stored records for five years, but the phone companies keep them for 18 months, therefore the ability to look backwards when beginning a new investigation will be limited.
The move to end the Patriot Act was led by the libertarian Republic Rand Paul who is standing as a candidate for the Presidency. Speaking in the Senate he said ‘Little by little, we’ve allowed our freedom to slip away,”
His fellow Republican, Sen John McCain disagreed strongly and reacted to the vote by saying that Mr Paul was not fit to be President “I’ve said on many occasions that I believe he would be the worst candidate we could put forward,” he said.
The former intelligence worker Edward Snowden revealed the news that the NSA bulk collected American’s private data in 2013. Since then there has been a fierce debate in the United States about what is and is not acceptable on the electronic side of attempting to prevent terrorism attacks.
Two independent inquiries concluded the NSA’s system was legal and had not been abused, but they also found that there had been few benefits from this intrusion into people’s lives. Supporters of the Act defended bulk data collection by saying it added to the potential overall picture the security services require