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Bill on NSA Surveillance Fails in Senate

Michael Johnson

The U.S. Senate blocked debate over a bill limiting the National Security Agency’s ability to collect the phone records of American citizens on Tuesday. In a 58-42 procedural vote, the “USA Freedom Act” fell short of the 60 votes needed to bring the reform package to the Senate floor. The vote was a blow to the Obama Administration’s recommended changes made by a special intelligence review board late last year.

The act would have restricted the NSA’s legal authority to gather information about Americans. The agency would have had to provide “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a phone number is linked to a terrorist or foreign power before requesting specific information from phone companies. Other changes would have involved appointing a new public advocate for privacy and civil liberties to the proceedings of the secretive Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA). Technology companies could also disclose more information about government requests for user’s data.

U.S. National Security Agency headquarters (Photo: AP)

The late night vote was mostly split down party lines, but Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted with all but one Democrat in favor of passage. Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) labeled the proposal as the “best opportunity” for reform.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounced the reforms, saying they “would end one of our nation’s critical capabilities to gather significant intelligence on terrorist threats.” Other Republicans cited the security risk posed by Islamic State as justification for voting against the bill. Meanwhile, possible Republican presidential contender and libertarian Rand Paul voted against the bill for the opposite reason, saying the act did not go far enough to end surveillance.

Ultimately, without the bill’s passage, the government must separately renew other key provisions of the Patriot Act before next summer. Specifically, section 215 will expire on June 1 leaving intelligence agencies unable to gather information in the U.S. for specific counter-terrorism cases without a warrant. The NSA’s bulk collection of metadata might end at that time, since section 215 is also used to justify the program.