Intelligence

Fate of surveillance program lies in Senate's hands

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The House of Representatives on May 13 overwhelmingly passed legislation to curb the federal government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, but the Senate is far more divided on the bill as lawmakers debate the utility and legality of the surveillance program.

The legislation – dubbed the USA Freedom Act -- would require the National Security Agency to get approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before requesting phone records from telecom firms.

The bill has the backing of the White House and some Senate Republicans. Ted Cruz of Texas is one of at least four Republican cosponsors of the Senate version, while Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to go further than the legislation does to limit bulk data collection.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is adamantly opposed to curbing bulk data collection, and has proposed his own measure that would extend the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act through July 31, National Journal reported.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the government has used to justify bulk data collection, will expire June 1 unless Congress and President Barack Obama can agree to an extension or revision of the law. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled that the bulk collection of telephone metadata and other records was not authorized under Section 215.

A bicameral and bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), an author of the 2001 law, have called on the Senate to pass the House bill. “We will not agree to any extension of the NSA’s bulk collection program, which has already been ruled unlawful by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals,” the group said in a joint statement.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of NSA surveillance, said he was encouraged by passage of the House bill, but wants to enact further changes.

“I am working with Senate colleagues to pass additional reforms, particularly ending the warrantless backdoor searches of Americans’ personal electronic communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” Wyden said in a May 13 statement.

A source close to Wyden expressed optimism about the bill’s chances in the Senate. “There is a strong bipartisan coalition who would oppose extending bulk collection under 215 of the Patriot Act in the Senate,” the source said, adding that the appellate court ruling on the provisions may give momentum to lawmakers opposing bulk data collection.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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