Senate Sends NSA Spying Overhaul Bill To President’s Desk

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed legislation to halt the National Security Agency’s bulk collection program for domestic telephone metadata and certain other domestic surveillance programs, sending the bill to be signed into law.

Senators voted 67-32 to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would prohibit the NSA from scooping up phone metadata, among other changes, while reauthorizing the Patriot Act’s Section 215, the chief statutory authority used to underpin a number of the agency’s surveillance programs, after having invoked cloture earlier in the day.

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law after earlier passing the House of Representatives, with senators rejecting several amendments put forward by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that, if adopted, would have sent the bill back to the House for further consideration.

The proposed amendments had previously been labeled “poison pills” by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of the main sponsors of the bill, and he made one last effort Tuesday to urge colleagues Tuesday to reject them. (Credit: AP).

“It’s time for us to pass this bill, this bill that has been passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives, this bill that carefully balances important interests that the American people care deeply about,” Lee said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. (Credit: AP).

Senators had voted to move forward with formal debate on the bill in a rare Sunday session, trying to pass the bill ahead of a looming deadline, after failing to come to a consensus the week before, just prior to heading out on a week-long recess. (Credit: AP)

But they were unable to complete consideration on Sunday as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. — who opposes the renewal of Section 215, arguing other existing surveillance authorities are sufficient and less intrusive — refused to allow debate to be sped up unless McConnell agreed to put Paul’s proposed amendments on the Senate floor for debate.

As a result, Section 215 — along with a provision allowing the government to target suspected “lone wolf” terrorists and roving wiretap authority, used to trace disposable “burner” cellphones — expired at midnight on Sunday, temporarily blocking the NSA from moving forward with certain new surveillance efforts until it is restored, although ongoing surveillance is allowed to continue.

When McConnell tried again to move forward on the bill on Monday, Paul again opposed the move, drawing public criticism from a number of his Republican colleagues. The bill has strong Democratic support but has split Republican lawmakers into several factions, both supporting and opposing, with opposition coming variously from those who believe it goes too far in changing Section 215 and those who believe it doesn’t go far enough.

McConnell had initially favored a reauthorization of existing Section 215 authorities through to 2020, but had begrudgingly put his support behind moving forward with the USA Freedom Act in recent days, even after criticizing what he argued were “serious flaws” in the bill, when it became clear that his proposed alternative did not have enough support to pass. The other alternative — letting Section 215 expire entirely — would be a “completely and totally unacceptable outcome,” he had argued on the Senate floor Sunday. (Credit: AP).

The USA Freedom Act was first introduced into Congress in 2013 in the wake of document leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, demonstrating the broad scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance and drawing outrage from a number of lawmakers, among others.

It makes several reforms to domestic surveillance authorities, prohibiting bulk collection of telephone and other records using either Section 215 or the “pen register” authority granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or through so-called national security letters. Using Section 215 for bulk telephone data collection was recently found unlawful by the Second Circuit.

The bill would also bar federal intelligence agencies from making other large-scale indiscriminate sweeps for domestic records, such as those filtered by ZIP code or city, make a number of changes to procedures at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees FISA requests.

It easily passed the House in May in a 338-88 vote with bipartisan support, and should be swiftly signed into law, with the White House having signaled its strong support for the bill, saying it makes appropriate reforms to address civil liberties and privacy concerns while still adequately protecting national security.