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NSA Starts to Shut Down Mass-Spying Program

 The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.

The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. // Rick Bowmer/AP File Photo

Senators will return to Washington next Sunday for a last-minute, last-ditch effort to reach an agreement on the National Security Agency's bulk surveillance, but the Obama administration says it's already shutting the program down.

"We've said for the past several days that the wind-down process would need to begin yesterday if there was no legislative agreement," an administration official said Saturday. "That process has begun."

The statement rebuffs Republicans such as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who said early Saturday that the administration was being "disingenuous" and that the program wouldn't really go offline until next week.

Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire on June 1, but White House officials have been warning that, without congressional action, the NSA would need to begin winding down its bulk collection of millions of phone records on May 22. That was the deadline set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the nation's intelligence programs.

The secretive court, which reauthorizes the phone data-collection every 90 days, told the administration it would need to file its new application by May 22.

"We did not file an application for reauthorization," the administration official confirmed.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest had warned Senate Republicans Friday that "to play chicken with [national security] is grossly irresponsible."

After the Senate failed to agree on legislation to renew the Patriot Act early Saturday, Senate Republican leaders said they would return on May 31 to try to hash out a last-minute deal.

Despite the White House and NSA warning that inaction would risk killing the program altogether, Burr, a fierce defender of NSA spying, said he believed it was merely a bluff.

Speaking to reporters on his way out of the Capitol, Burr said NSA lawyers had assured his staff earlier in the day that the real shutdown would not begin until 4 p.m. on May 31. "The database doesn't go poof and go away," he said.

Asked whether he believed the NSA was lying to the public about an earlier shutdown, Burr said, "I think it's disingenuous, but they don't work for me, they work for the president."

"And the White House has been very specific that they wanted this bill passed," the North Carolina Republican continued. "This was the most significant lobby on a piece of legislation in the six years I've seen the Obama administration."

The House already passed the USA Freedom Act, which would extend Patriot Act authorities but bar the NSA from indiscriminately collecting U.S. records in bulk. Instead, the agency would be able to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to obtain specific records from the phone companies.

Democrats and several Republicans pushed to pass the USA Freedom Act in the Senate. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Burr, and other Republicans warned it would hamper national security.

The Senate voted 57-to-42 on the House bill shortly after midnight Saturday, but it was short of the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles. McConnell then offered a two-month extension of the Patriot Act without any changes, but it failed on a vote of 45-to-54.

Sens. Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Martin Heinrich then objected to extensions of even a few days. Out of options, McConnell said the Senate would return on May 31, and the senators left for their Memorial Day recess.

"This was an entirely avoidable scenario," said Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who cosponsored the USA Freedom Act. "I think we should have put it on the floor earlier. It was a big mistake not to."

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