This post was originally published on March 11, 2015.
A secret US court has yet again come down in favor of the NSA’s controversial phone snooping program, extending its deadline to 1 June.
The government asked for reauthorisation of the program as reform legislation, called the USA Freedom Act, was stalled in Congress, saying that non-renewal could “raise the risk” of another terrorist incident.
Should the Freedom Act pass, the retention of bulk data would fall into the remit of telecommunications companies rather than the National Security Agency. Not only that, but restrictions would be placed on the usage of those records, including the search terms that could be applied to them.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that a failure to extend the relevant part of the Patriot Act, which is due to expire under a so-called “sunset” clause, would rob the intelligence community of a vital part of its toolkit in the fight against terrorism.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which relates to business records, was used to collect large swathes of telephone metadata from Verizon customers, according to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The section also allows the government to obtain surveillance warrants without identifying the target and comes complete with “gag orders” which prevent service providers from disclosing information requests.
Additionally, Section 215 also allows the surveillance of foreign nationals who are suspected of being involved in terrorist activity, even if they are not connected to any known terrorist organisation.
Despite the far-reaching nature of Section 215, which was introduced after the atrocities of September 11, it has often been claimed that it has failed to stop even one terrorist incident.
Despite calls for it to be dropped or reworked, and a major policy announcement in January 2014 which saw the president promise to end bulk data collection as part of reforms to the NSA, the program has been extended repeatedly.
In the 14 months since President Obama made his pledge, the program has been extended on no less than five occasions.
With the previous December 2014 extension coming to an end, the government this time pushed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to extend the program by more than the customary 90 days in order to align the expiry date with the Patriot Act’s sunset clause.
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clapper said,
“In the end, Congress giveth and Congress taketh away.
If the congress in its wisdom decides the juice is not worth the squeeze that’s fine: the intelligence community will do all it can within the law to do what it can to protect the country.
But I have to say, every time we lose another tool in our tool kit, it raises the risk.
If that tool is taken away from us, and some untoward incident happens which could have been thwarted if we had it, I just hope that everyone involved in that decision assumes responsibility.”
While critics of the NSA and some lawyers continue to call upon President Obama to drop the program completely, Clapper remains a staunch defender, likening it to an insurance policy that you keep on buying even though you hope to never have to use it.