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NSA's collection of phone-call data could be cut off for a time

As a key deadline approaches, the US Senate votes against extending a controversial National Security Agency program -- but votes down a bill designed to reform it.

Edward Snowden depicted on a German parade float. The US Senate is set to reconvene on May 31 for a last-minute session regarding an NSA spy program that Snowden revealed in 2013.
Edward Snowden depicted on a German parade float. The US Senate is set to reconvene on May 31 for a last-minute session regarding an NSA spy program that Snowden revealed in 2013.
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

The National Security Agency's access to phone-call data may be cut off, at least temporarily, after the US Senate failed to reach a compromise about a controversial NSA surveillance program prior to a crucial deadline.

The Senate failed Saturday to pass an extension of provisions of the USA Patriot Act that expire June 1 and have served as the legal justification for the NSA's current, wholesale collection of telephone data. The spy agency has said such collection is crucial in fighting terrorism.

Earlier in the same session, the Senate had killed a reform bill, the USA Freedom Act, passed by the House and backed by the Obama administration. That legislation would have allowed collection to continue, but in a newly restricted way designed to safeguard constitutional rights regarding privacy, while protecting national security.

The heated back-and-forth over the agency's surveillance programs has been going on for two years, since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the programs to journalists. The Freedom Act would require the agency to seek a court order on a case-by-case basis to obtain call data from telephone companies -- rather than scooping up data itself in bulk and examining it with an OK from the special, secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Critics have said a new legal process would be too slow and would hamper the NSA's counterterrorism efforts. Reform supporters, however, have challenged claims about the current program's effectiveness in preventing terror attacks and have said the reform bill would help ensure individual liberties.

The Senate is set to reconvene after its Memorial Day recess for a rare Sunday session, on May 31, to vote again on a Patriot Act extension, and possibly reconsider the Freedom Act. But any extension would need to be approved by the House, which isn't scheduled to meet again until after the June 1 expiration deadline. That means the NSA's phone-data collection could lapse altogether for a time.

Members of the surveillance community say a failure to renew the Patriot Act would threaten national security. The US would face "considerable risk and uncertainty," Bloomberg quoted unnamed officials as saying. And while advocating, Saturday, for a last-minute extension to the Patriot Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pointed to terrorism.

"This is a high threat period," McConnell said, according to blog Politico. "We better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by total expiration of the program that we're all familiar with."

But supporters of the reform-focused Freedom act said that the bill's opponents in the Senate were refusing to compromise. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, underlined the necessity for surveillance but chastised reform opponents for playing political games.

"The Senate should make no mistake," Schiff said, according to The Washington Post. "if it does not pass the bill and the provisions expire -- it will have a lot of questions to answer about why it decided to play legislative chicken with important intelligence tools."