National Security

Senate approves sweeping reforms to NSA spying programs

Greg Nash



The Senate on Tuesday sent legislation reforming the nation’s surveillance laws to President Obama’s desk — days after a stalemate caused the National Security Agency’s powers to lapse.

President Obama signed the bill into law Tuesday evening, the White House said.

The 67-32 vote for the USA Freedom Act came more than 36 hours after three parts of the Patriot Act expired, forcing the NSA to wind down its bulk collection of U.S. phone data.

{mosads}Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suffered a political blow during the bruising fight over the legislation. He and other hawkish Republican senators opposed the bill even after the House approved it in a broad, bipartisan vote.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lambasted McConnell for the lapse in Patriot Act provisions, arguing it would not have happened if the GOP leader hadn’t spent so much time on trade legislation in the previous month.

Adding further insult to McConnell’s injury, all three of the amendments to the legislation he supported died on Tuesday.

McConnell was also thwarted by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a presidential candidate and his erstwhile ally.

Paul blocked several efforts by McConnell to pass a short-term extension of the expiring powers before Congress’s Memorial Day recess, all but ensuring a lapse in the surveillance authority. Paul has made opposing NSA spying a central part of his presidential campaign, but his efforts over the last few weeks clearly irritated many of his Senate colleagues. 

Passage of the law is a significant victory for critics of the NSA. For the first time since the post-9/11 national security law was passed, Congress voted to rein in the government’s surveillance powers.

Fittingly, the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone metadata, passed almost exactly two years to the day after government leaker Edward Snowden first revealed the existence of the program to the world.

“It’s an historic moment,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the authors of the bill, said immediately after the vote. “It’s the first major overhaul in government surveillance laws in decades and adds significant privacy protections for the American people.”

Once Obama signs the bill, which is likely to be soon, the three parts of the Patriot Act that expired at midnight Sunday will go back online, bringing with them authorities that the government says are critical to protecting the nation.

It will give the NSA about six months to stop sweeping up phone metadata, which includes the phone numbers involved in a call, the time a call occurred and its length. The NSA program does not collect the content of people’s conversations.

“Nobody’s civil liberties are being violated here,” McConnell insisted moments before the vote.

The bill also limits other types of data collection, adds transparency measures and places a new expert panel at the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees intelligence activities but currently only hears the government’s side of an argument.

The House passed the legislation 338-88 last month, which many saw as a ringing endorsement of its reforms.

The bill hit a series of snags in the Senate, however.

After lawmakers in the upper chamber initially blocked it, as well as a short-term measure offered by McConnell, the Senate was forced to return for a rare Sunday evening vote, hours before the spying powers lapsed.

In recent days, McConnell and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had made a last-ditch attempt to amend the bill over the heated objections of House lawmakers and the White House.

“There are a number of us who feel very strongly that this is a significant weakening of the tools that were put in place in the wake of 9/11 to protect the country,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

Later, on the Senate floor, McConnell characterized the White House-backed bill as part of a broader tendency by the Obama administration to dull America’s national security edge.

“This bill is a part of a pattern, going back to the time the president took office, to pull back,” he said, equating it to Obama’s promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and the military drawdown in Afghanistan.

Critics said the three amendments would have significantly watered down the bill. The measures would have reduced the powers of the new expert court panel, given the NSA more time to end its phone records program and imposed new requirements for how phone companies store call data.

Updated at 9:21 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Edward Snowden Harry Reid Mitch McConnell National Security Agency nsa Patriot Act
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