Unless Congress acts
A federal court has again renewed an order allowing the National Security Agency to continue its bulk collection of Americans' phone records, a decision that comes more than a year after President Obama pledged to end the controversial program.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved this week a government request to keep the NSA's mass surveillance of U.S. phone metadata operating until June 1, coinciding with when the legal authority for the program is set to expire in Congress.
The extension is the fifth of its kind since Obama said he would effectively end the Snowden-exposed program as it currently exists during a major policy speech in January 2014. Obama and senior administration officials have repeatedly insisted that they will not act alone to end the program without Congress.
"While the administration waits for the Congress to act, it has continued to operate the program with ... important modifications in place," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement released late Friday.
More than a year's worth of efforts to reform the NSA stalled last year, as the Senate came two votes short of advancing the USA Freedom Act in November. The measure failed to overcome a filibuster by Republicans, many of whom warned any limitation imposed on the NSA could bolster terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
It is widely expected that lawmakers will reintroduce versions of the Freedom Act in the new Congress, but no bill has emerged so far. Core parts of the post-9/11 Patriot Act will sunset on June 1, including Section 215, which grants the NSA legal authority to conduct its controversial dragnet surveillance program.
Amid the congressional inaction, the FISA Court has now renewed the NSA's most controversial spying program five times—in March, June, September, December and now February—since Obama delivered his pledge to end it in its current form.
"Congress has a limited window before the June 1 sunset to enact legislation that would implement the President's proposed path forward for the telephony metadata program, while preserving key intelligence authorities," Earnest said in his statement. "The administration continues to stand ready to work with the Congress on such legislation and would welcome the opportunity to do so."
Some NSA critics and even some lawmakers, such as Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, have called for Obama to end the program unilaterally.
The intelligence community, under Obama's direction, has implemented some changes to how it stores and collects U.S. and foreign communications data, but privacy advocates have repeatedly insisted those tweaks are not enough.
It remains unclear if there is a path forward for substantial NSA reform in Congress, leaving surveillance critics to worry lawmakers may ultimately pass a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
The government is required to seek reauthorization of its phone records program every 90 days, though the most recent order surpasses the 90-day limit by a few days in order to reach June 1.
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