For the first time since September 11, 2001, Congress curtailed the National Security Agency’s authority to track suspected terrorists as lawmakers struggled to restore approval for mass collection of phone records and other surveillance methods.
No solution was likely before Tuesday (Wednesday NZT) at the earliest. The high-stakes drama played out as Congress debated significant changes prompted by the disclosures of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the phone records collection and other main surveillance programs.
While intelligence officials publicly warned of danger, they said they were not deeply concerned with a lapse of a few days or weeks, given that the authorities remain available in pending investigations. What they most fear is a legislative impasse that could doom the programs permanently.
Republican Senator Rand Paul, a presidential candidate, took credit for blocking the Senate from extending the surveillance powers in an extraordinary Sunday session. That forced the Senate to take up a different bill passed by the House of Representatives, which then stalled on Monday (Tuesday NZT) as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans sought changes.
It is good to see push back against ever increasing surveillance powers. Some powers are necessary, but they should be targeted at those under suspicion, not trawling through the entire population.
And the reality is that mass phone number programme has never been credited with actually helping detect or prevent a terrorist attack.