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House rejects NSA collection of phone records with vote to reform spy agency

Congressmen voted overwhelmingly to ban the mass collection of American phone records on Wednesday, as the House of Representatives piled up pressure to reform the most domestically contentious National Security Agency program revealed by Edward Snowden.

Two years after the former NSA contractor first revealed the controversial "bulk collection" program in the Guardian, the 338-88 vote in favour of the USA Freedom Act marks the second time the House has voted for an alternative system restricting government agencies to more targeted surveillance.

But this time, reformers are growing more confident of also convincing the Senate to back the legislation after strong support in recent days from the White House, intelligence agency leaders and a US federal appeals court - even as major civil libertarian groups have decried the bill as insufficient reform.

With just six working days left for Congress to re-authorise a controversial expiring portion of the 2001 Patriot Act that the NSA has used since 2006 to justify the program, Senate Republican leaders have insisted the bulk domestic surveillance should be renewed in its current form but conceded they may not have the votes to do so.

"I don't know if that can get 60 over here," South Dakota senator John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, told the Guardian on Wednesday, referring to the number of votes required to pass a re-authorisation of the Patriot Act's Section 215, including the bulk phone records collection. He added that there may be a process that will allow for votes on "several different proposals".

Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has introduced legislation with Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, that would extend the existing language of the Patriot Act through 2020. A spokesman for McConnell said the plan in the Senate is still to bring up that bill, despite bipartisan opposition to it, and open the floor to amendments.

Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who has proposed several reforms to the Fisa court, argued that the House vote makes McConnell's position "untenable".

"He's really in a box," Blumenthal told reporters on Wednesday. "I don't know what his strategy is. I think he should sit down with supporters of the USA Freedom Act and reach a compromise that preserves constitutional rights and at the same time protects security."

In the House of Representatives, most Republicans, including hawks on the intelligence committee, were emphatic that the USA Freedom Act represented the best chance to preserve more targeted NSA surveillance powers.

"America's liberty and America's security can coexist," said judiciary chair Bob Goodlatte in the debate leading up to Wednesday's vote. "They are not mutually exclusive."

Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the original Patriot Act and lead sponsor of the USA Freedom Act reforms, argued they were the best possible compromise between the wishes of "national security hawks and civil libertarians" and accused the bill's opponents of "fear-mongering".

"I don't fault my colleagues who wish this bill went further to protect our civil liberties. For years the government has violated the privacy of innocent Americans, and I share your anger," he said. "But letting Section 215 and other surveillance authorities expire would not only threaten our national security, it would also mean less privacy protections."

Congressional staff involved in refining the USA Freedom Act since it last passed the House by 303 votes to 121 in May 2014 believe various revisions since have made the bill palatable enough to security hawks in the Senate, though expect possible amendments in the days ahead.

"With the passage of this bill, the House will have done its part to enact historic and sweeping reforms," said John Conyers of Michigan, the leading Democrat behind the bill.

"Today we have a rare opportunity to restore a measure of restraint to surveillance programmes that have simply gone too far."

Yet several major civil libertarian groups, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, abandoned support for a bill they consider an insufficient reform.

Privacy advocates were emboldened last week by a federal appeals court's rejection of the NSA's bulk domestic phone records collection. They prefer a flat expiration of Section 215, a broad Patriot Act provision authorizing vast law enforcement powers to acquire business records, which will happen on 1 June absent explicit congressional revival. They note that the vast majority of bulk NSA surveillance, especially outside the United States, will be left untouched by the USA Freedom Act.

"As a result of the Second Circuit decision, the USA Freedom Act's modest changes appear even smaller compared to the now judicially recognized problems with the mass collection of Americans' records," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's David Greene and Mark Jaycox wrote in a Tuesday op-ed.

NSA surveillance is the rare issue to scramble entrenched Senate partisan divides. McConnell's key opponent on surveillance is his fellow Kentucky Republican, Rand Paul, who has made opposition to overly broad spying a central aspect of his bid for the party's 2016 presidential nomination. Paul has vowed to filibuster McConnell's bill, along with Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat who sits on the intelligence committee and has long criticised the mass surveillance.

Wyden stood by the pledge on Wednesday, telling reporters he would block any effort "to just re-up the Patriot Act without reforms and the phone records collection program just as it is".

"I consider it a federal human relations database," Wyden said. "Millions and millions of phone records - when people call, often where they call from, who they call - is a lot of information."

Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said he was struck by how many Senate Republicans are committed to a straight re-authorisation - which he called a "non-starter". He also pointed to the disconnect between Republican leaders in the House and Senate on the issue.

"I think it's astounding that House and Senate Republican leaders are running down separate parallel tracks this close to the deadline," Murphy told the Guardian.

[Source: By Dan Roberts and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington and Spencer Ackerman in New York, The Guardian, London, 13May15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 19May15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.