Congress on Tuesday rejected some of the sweeping intelligence-gathering powers it granted national security officials after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the Senate voting 67-32 to pass the USA Freedom Act. The bill put an end to the government’s bulk collection of private telephone records and to reform other surveillance policies.
President Obama signed legislation into law on Tuesday evening reinstating key counterterrorism laws and reforming the government’s surveillance powers. With Obama’s signature, three parts of the Patriot Act — including the controversial Section 215 — came back into force after expiring Monday morning.
The bill also enacts the most sweeping surveillance reforms in a generation, for the first time in years putting new restrictions on federal intelligence powers.
The USA Freedom Act ends the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records, limits other ways the government collects large amounts of records and adds new transparency measures to the way the government collects information.
The USA Freedom Act, passed against the will of Senate Republican leaders who wished to preserve existing spy programs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led the opposition to the bill, prompted an intraparty standoff that exposed sharp splits along philosophical and generational lines, and between the two chambers on Capitol Hill..
The bill passed by a wide margin in the House last month but stalled in the Senate as those who sought to maintain the status quo, led by McConnell, tried to stop a group led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). It was Paul who led other senators who supported either ending or reforming the most controversial provisions of the surveillance programs.
At a press conference Tuesday the Senate Majority Leader made his feelings known as he understood that he was on the losing end of this fight.
“It does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens, and it surely compromises American security by taking one more tool from our war fighters, in my view, at exactly the wrong time,” McConnell said Tuesday, minutes before colleagues rejected a series of amendments he favored.
The USA Freedom Act represents the first legislative overhaul passed in response to the 2013 disclosures of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone “metadata” and the legal rationale for it — the little-noticed Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The new legislation places additional curbs on that authority, most significantly by mandating a six-month transition to a system in which the call data — which includes call numbers, times and durations — would remain in private company hands but could be searched on a case-by-case basis under a court order. One supporter, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), described the legislation as “the most significant surveillance reform in decades.”