23 January 2019
The Freedom Act resulted from a long-running debate over how to balance Americans' distrust of intrusive government with fears of terrorist attacks. Photo: Reuters
The Freedom Act resulted from a long-running debate over how to balance Americans' distrust of intrusive government with fears of terrorist attacks. Photo: Reuters

Obama set to sign surveillance reform bill into law

The US Senate on Tuesday passed legislation reforming a government surveillance program that collected millions of Americans’ telephone records, Reuters reported.

The bill will now go to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

Reversing security policy in place since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the bill would end a system exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The spy agency collected and searched records of phone calls looking for terrorism leads but was not allowed to listen to their content.

Passage of the USA Freedom Act, the result of an alliance between Senate Democrats and some of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, was a victory for Obama, a Democrat, and a setback for Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Obama used his Twitter account, @POTUS, after the vote to say he was glad it had passed. “I’ll sign it as soon as I get it,” the tweet said.

Before voting 67-32 to pass the bill, senators defeated three amendments proposed by Republican leaders after they reversed themselves and ended efforts to block it. The House of Representatives had passed the measure overwhelmingly last month.

In the end, 23 Senate Republicans voted for the Freedom Act, joining 196 who backed it in the House.

In a rift between Republicans, who control both chambers, House leaders had warned that amendments proposed by McConnell would be a “challenge” for the House that could delay the bill.

A federal appeals court on May 7 ruled the collection of “metadata” illegal.

The new law would require companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., to collect and store telephone records the same way that they do now for billing purposes.

But instead of routinely feeding US intelligence agencies such data, the companies would be required to turn it over only in response to a government request approved by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the news agency said.

The Freedom Act is the first major legislative reform of US surveillance since Snowden’s revelations two years ago this month led to debate over how to balance Americans’ distrust of intrusive government with fears of terrorist attacks.

Along with the phone records program, two other domestic surveillance programs authorized under the 2001 USA Patriot Act have been shut down since Sunday.

After Republican Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential candidate, blocked McConnell’s efforts to keep them going temporarily, the Senate missed a deadline to extend legal authorities for certain data collection by the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

McConnell made an unusually strong last-ditch argument against the Freedom Act after his amendments failed.

“It surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our warfighters, in my view, at exactly the wrong time,” he said in a Senate speech.

Telephone companies had been less than thrilled about potentially overhauling their record-keeping systems to become the repositories of surveillance records.

Together with civil liberties groups, they opposed specific requirements for how long they must retain any data, which were proposed in some amendments that were later defeated.

After Obama signs the bill, the executive branch would have to apply to the surveillance court for reauthorization, the report said.

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