The US National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial bulk phone data collection programme is winding down with a weird whimper following an especially bilious round of legislative squabbling.
The NSA began the multi-day process to shut down its dragnet phone collection after Congress didn’t reauthorise the Patriot Act, which was used as legal justification for the mass surveillance programme. “That process has begun,” an administration official told the Los Angeles Times
And one of the people directly responsible for closing down the programme is one of its biggest supporters.
Members of Congress, which is the US equivalent of Parliament in the UK, debated the merits of the USA Freedom Act, which prohibited the NSA’s specific data collection programme but renewed the Patriot Act. One of that bill’s biggest opponents was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) who tried to block the USA Freedom Act because he thought it didn’t go far enough to preserve the Patriot Act.
McConnell hoped that Congress would be cornered into creating a temporary authorisation of the Patriot Act if the bill didn’t pass, but his big gamble didn’t pay off. Even though he successfully helped kill the USA Freedom Act, all of the temporary Patriot Act authorisations were also blocked by Congress. That means McConnell helped bring about exactly what some of the NSA’s most strident critics had hoped for: An expired, or “sunsetted” Patriot Act.
This may not be the end for the Patriot Act. On May 31, Congress will reconvene to try and hammer out a last-ditch save. But the NSA is already starting to shut things down, and by the time Congress returns from its Memorial Day holiday, it’ll be too late to ask for the 90-day extension needed to keep collecting phone records in bulk.
This isn’t an example of dismantling the surveillance state so much as an example of how Congressional infighting can distract Capitol Hill from getting stuff done.
To add an extra layer of chaos to these proceedings, a court recently ruled that the Patriot Act was not a legal justification for the NSA’s surveillance programme, which renders this whole battle mostly pointless.
Unless a legislative miracle happens, starting at 5 pm on June 1, the NSA will lose its incredibly flimsy legal justification for the program.
Image by Jim Cooke