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US domestic surveillance in limbo after Senate vote

US domestic surveillance programs involving the mass collection of data on private telephone calls face an uncertain future after two votes in the Senate. Debate is to continue later this month.

The US Senate rejected legislation early Saturday to reform the way domestic spy agencies collect vast amount of data on Americans' telephone calls, in a blow to President Barack Obama.

The so-called USA Freedom Act, which passed easily in the House of Representatives last week, fell three votes short of the 60 votes necessary for it to advance.

The bill, strongly backed by Obama, would have ended the bulk collection of phone data, replacing it with a more targeted system in which case-by-case authorization would have been given to search records held by phone companies rather than government authorities.

In another vote, the Senate also blocked legislation that would have extended by two months provisions of the

USA Patriot Act

allowing the mass collection of telephone records. The provisions

expire on June 1.

Programs in jeopardy

The votes means further uncertainty on the future of the US surveillance programs, which many Americans see as infringing on their civil liberties, while intelligence agencies consider them as essential in the battle against terrorism.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking after the votes, said the Senate would return to Washington on May 31 - cutting short its Memorial Day holiday break by one day - to debate ways of preventing the expiry of the surveillance measures.

Edward Snowden sitting at a curtained window

Snowden's revelations on NSA activities caused shockwaves throughout the world

"We'll have a week to discuss it. We'll have one day to do it. But we better be ready next Sunday afternoon to prevent the country from being in danger by the total expiration of the program that we're all familiar with," he said.

Offers to extend the Patriot Act provisions into the first week of June were also rejected.

"Our forefathers would be aghast" at the amount of spying done on Americans, said Senator Rand Paul, a Republican 2016 presidential candidate who has long-demanded an end to the telephone data dragnet.

The extent of the US domestic surveillance program was revealed in 2013 by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, provoking outrage in some quarters that millions of private telephone records were being held.

The Patriot Act was passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in a bid to increase national security.

tj/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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