WASHINGTON: The White House has accused senators of allowing an "irresponsible lapse" in America's counterterrorism capabilities after they failed to reauthorise the National Security Agency's collection of billions of phone records.
A standoff between Republicans in the Senate meant that parts of the Patriot Act, sweeping legislation rushed in after September 11, were allowed to expire at midnight on Sunday. As a result the NSA can no longer collect phone records made in the US under the surveillance programme exposed by Edward Snowden, the whistleblower.
For the first time in more than a decade, Americans can make landline calls without the government being able to know who they called and how long for.
The NSA's powers are likely to be restored by a reformed law later this week but the White House warned that even a temporary lapse could be dangerous. "We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. "On a matter as critical as our national security, individual senators must put aside their partisan motivations."
Most senators from both parties support a White House-backed proposal known as the USA Freedom Act, which would modestly rein in the power of the NSA. Phone records would be held by phone companies rather than collected in bulk by the agency. Intelligence agencies would have to provide more specific justifications before they began searching the database of records.
But the reform law is opposed by Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican senator who is running for the presidential nomination. He argues that it does not go far enough in rolling back NSA surveillance.
He used Senate rules to prevent the USA Freedom Act from passing before the deadline and has vowed to prevent its passage for as long as possible.
Senators in both parties accused him of playing politics with national security.
Campaigners in the UK are likely to step up attempts to block a "snooper's charter" in the wake of the American standoff, Whitehall sources said. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is to introduce a Bill requiring providers to keep records of their users' full web activities.