US Senate passes bill to rein in NSA phone dragnet

Senators reject amendments to 'water down' the NSA reform bill

NSA headquarters.

NSA headquarters.

The U.S. Senate has passed legislation intended to rein in the National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic telephone records, sending the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The Senate's 67-32 vote Tuesday on the USA Freedom Act restores a limited telephone records program at the NSA to resume after the old bulk collection program expired Sunday night. After Obama's signature, the NSA will have six months to transition its phone records database to U.S. telecom carriers.

The USA Freedom Act, aimed at ending bulk collection of telephone records, was needed after revelations about the program by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in mid-2013, supporters said. Some digital rights groups have blasted the bill as "fake reform," but the bill's limits on the NSA will help restore the U.S. public's trust in government surveillance efforts, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

The bill brings transparency to the surveillance process and "will help restore Americans' privacy, all while ensuring the intelligence community has what it needs," Leahy said. The bill is the "first major overhaul" of government surveillance in decades, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who tried to amend the bill, blasted the USA Freedom Act, saying it will make the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism. The bill is part of Obama's efforts to "dismantle our counterterrorism tools," he said. The vote will "take one more tool away from those who defend this country every day," he added.

The phone records program did not let government officials listen to calls, and telephone customers' privacy wasn't breached because the records belong to the carriers, not to them, McConnell argued. "Nobody's civil liberties are being violated here," he said.

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve the USA Freedom Act in mid-May.

The provision of the Patriot Act that the NSA used as authorization to collect millions of domestic telephone records expired late Sunday, and the NSA reportedly stopped querying its telephone records database after that.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act allowed the NSA to collect any telephone and business records relevant to a counterterrorism investigation. The NSA, under the past two presidential administrations, has used that section of the law to collect millions of U.S. telephone records in bulk, even though critics have complained that bulk collection violates U.S. residents' privacy.

Earlier Tuesday, senators rejected three amendments to the bill, with critics saying the proposed changes would water down the bill's privacy protections and transparency provisions.

Supporters called the amendments, offered by McConnell, "common sense" changes to help protect U.S. residents from terrorist attacks.

The USA Freedom Act could limit the effectiveness of the NSA's long-running domestic telephone records program, but the amendments would improve the new program to replace the NSA's bulk collection, said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. The McConnell amendments would have sped up the process for the agency to obtain phone records that will be held by telephone carriers, he said.

"It's reckless to take a chance" that the replacement phone records program won't be as effective as the old one, Cornyn said.

The amendments from McConnell would have slowed the process of restoring an NSA phone records program, with House leaders threatening that they would not approve the changes, critics said. McConnell's changes risked "derailing" the bill, said Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat.

"Right now, we need to start by taking one big step in the right direction," by passing the bill, he added.

Democrats were joined by a handful of conservative and Libertarian-leaning Republicans in rejecting the McConnell amendments. Just one Democrat and one independent senator voted against the final bill.

McConnell had proposed an amendment that would have delayed the transition of the domestic phone records database from the NSA to telecom carriers, from the current six months provided in the USA Freedom Act to one year.

Another amendment would have weakened the USA Freedom Act's requirement that the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court that approves surveillance and data collection orders, call upon privacy and technology experts when deciding significant cases. McConnell's amendment would have made the advisors optional for FISC judges.

A third amendment would have required telecom carriers to notify the government if they decided to shorten the length of time they retain customer records.

Senators Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, had proposed nine amendments intended to strengthen the privacy protections in the bill, but McConnell didn't permit votes on their amendments.

One of their amendments would have prohibited government agencies from requiring hardware and software companies to weaken encryption and build surveillance back doors into their products. Another amendment would have changed the standard for collection from a "reasonable grounds" to suspect terrorist activity to the more stringent "probable cause" requirement for police before they get court-ordered warrants.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Mitch McConnellU.S. SenatetelecommunicationU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance CourtU.S. National Security AgencyAl FrankenlegislationBarack ObamaPatrick LeahyprivacyRand PaulRon WydensecurityEdward Snowdengovernment

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