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Senate panel backs NSA data collection

The Senate Intelligence Committee advanced legislation Thursday that would tweak but not end the National Security Agency's program to collect records on all U.S. phone calls.

The move sets up a showdown with the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will soon take up legislation to end the controversial program.

The panel approved the bill, the FISA Improvements Act, in an 11-4 vote during a classified markup session. 

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“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security," Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCaitlyn Jenner exploring bid for California governor: report WokeWorld comes for 'oppressor' Obama: Activists rip school being named after 'deporter in chief' Senators press for answers in Space Command move decision MORE (D-Calif.), the author of the bill, said in a statement. 

"But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place," she said. 

The phone data program, which the NSA says is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, allows the agency to collect records such as phone numbers, call times and call durations on all U.S. calls. The agency says it does not collect the contents of any conversations under the program.

The existence of the phone data collection has been one of the most controversial revelations from the leaks by Edward Snowden. 

Feinstein told reporters after the Senate Intelligence Committee meeting that the bill did include some new prohibitions on the use of the NSA’s bulk phone data collection program.

“We’ve tried to also make a matter of law that there is a prohibited use for these numbers for anything other than counterterrorism purposes,” she said.

“We’ve tried very hard to put together a bipartisan bill that improves transparency, improves privacy, has more public reporting, has more checks and we’ve done it to the best we can. And we’ve got a good solid two-thirds vote of the committee.”

Feinstein's bill would limit access to the agency's vast database of phone records, expressly prohibit analysts from listening in on calls (which they already say they don't do) and codify the existing requirement that analysts have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number is associated with terrorism before searching the database.

Intentional unauthorized access of the database could result in criminal penalties and up to 10 years in prison under bill. 

The legislation would also require that the Senate confirm the NSA director and require more reporting to Congress and the public on the surveillance activities.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who voted against the legislation, said in a statement that Feinstein's bill "does not go far enough to address the NSA's overreaching domestic surveillance programs."

He said the committee rejected an amendment he offered to toughen the privacy protections.

"The NSA's ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform - not incidental changes," Udall said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also said he opposed the measure. 

Civil liberties group are suing to end the NSA phone data program, arguing that the Patriot Act never authorized the bulk collection of records on millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. 

They warn that Feinstein's bill would effectively ratify the program, and they worry that it could result in their lawsuits being thrown out.

"This is not reform but an attempt to put a congressional stamp of approval on gross privacy violations," Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "We will fight this bill for what it is—a way to make the worst abuses of the Patriot Act permanent."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act, introduced the USA Freedom Act earlier this week to end the bulk phone data collection and toughen other privacy protections. 

Last Updated at 6:06 p.m. 

—Jeremy Herb contributed