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The NSA's Authority to Bulk Collect Americans' Phone Records Has Just Expired

Though several provisions of the Patriot Act have now expired, a new bill, the USA Freedom Act, may reintroduce and even extend the spying allowances.
Photo by Pete Marovich/EPA

The US National Security Agency (NSA) lost its legal authority to collect Americans' phone records in bulk at midnight on Sunday, after senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul stood in the way of extending the fiercely contested measures in an extraordinary Senate session.

"The president continues to conduct an illegal program," Paul said, as supporters packed the spectator gallery wearing "Stand With Rand" t-shirts, and took to social media to express their approval.

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The provisions that grant legal authority to collect and search domestic phone records lapsed at midnight, but the change may only be temporary. Another bill, the USA Freedom Act, has been advanced and could provide for new forms of data collection along with extending anti-terror provisions. This bill is supported by the White House, and was also reluctantly embraced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Intelligence officials expressed concerns that any lapse in the provisions could jeopardize the safety of US citizens. Meanwhile, civil liberties groups applauded as Paul, who is running for president, forced the expiration of the once-secret program made public by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which critics say is an unconstitutional intrusion into Americans' privacy.

Related: Barring a Last-Minute Senate Deal, Patriot Act Spy Provisions Will Expire Tonight at Midnight

The Senate voted 77-17 to move ahead with the Freedom Act, which only last weekend fell three votes short of the 60 needed to advance in the Senate. For McConnell, it was a remarkable retreat after objecting ferociously that the House bill would make the bulk phone collections program dangerously unwieldy by requiring the government to search records maintained by phone companies.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest welcomed the advancement of the bill. In a statement, he said: "The Senate took an important — if late — step forward tonight. We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible. On a matter as critical as our national security, individual senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly."

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"This is what we fought the revolution over, are we going to so blithely give up our freedom?… I'm not going to take it anymore," Paul declared on the Senate floor hours earlier.

Paul's moves greatly complicated matters for fellow Kentuckian McConnell, who has endorsed him for president, and infuriated fellow Republicans. They exited the Senate chamber en masse when Paul stood up to speak following the procedural vote on the House bill.

Senator John McCain complained to reporters that Paul places "a higher priority on his fundraising and his ambitions than on the security of the nation."

Paul, for his part, asserted that: "People here in town think I'm making a huge mistake. Some of them I think secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me."

I came here to defend the Bill of Rights, not to be popular. — Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul)May 31, 2015

In addition to the bulk phone collections provision, two lesser-known Patriot Act provisions also lapsed at midnight: one, so far unused, helps track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects unconnected to a foreign power; the second allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continually discard their cellphones.

The Freedom Act would extend those two provisions unchanged, while remaking the bulk collection program so that the NSA would stop collecting the phone records after a six-month transition period, but would be authorized under court order to search records held by phone companies.

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Related: A New Standoff Has Emerged as the Future of Patriot Act Is in Flux

The FBI's use of the Patriot Act to collect hotel, travel, credit card, banking, and other business records in national security investigations would also be extended under the House bill. Law enforcement officials say the collection of those business records is more valuable than the better-known bulk phone collections program. Ongoing investigations would be permitted to continue even though authority for the programs has lapsed.

CIA Director John Brennan was among those warning that letting the authorities lapse, even for a time, will make America less safe.

"Terrorist elements… are looking for the seams to operate within," Brennan said on CBS show Face the Nation. ''This is something that we can't afford to do right now." He bemoaned "too much political grandstanding and crusading for ideological causes that have skewed the debate on this issue" and said the terrorism-fighting tools are important to American lives.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.