The Senate sped toward passage Tuesday of legislation to end the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ calling records while preserving other surveillance authorities. But House leaders warned their Senate counterparts not to proceed with planned changes to a House version.
Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, said amendments contemplated by the Senate “would bring real challenges” in getting the House to go along.
“The best way to make sure America is protected is for the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act,” he said, referring to the House version.
The Senate version of that bill cleared a procedural hurdle Tuesday by a vote of 83-14, and it was expected to pass the Senate by day’s end. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he planned votes on three modifications.
The law authorizing government bulk collection and storage of Americans’ phone records expired at midnight Sunday. The NSA stopped gathering the records from phone companies hours before the deadline. Other post-9/11 surveillance provisions considered more effective than the phone-data collection program also lapsed, leading intelligence officials to warn of critical gaps.
Those other provisions include the FBI’s authority to gather business records in terrorism and espionage investigations, and to more easily eavesdrop on a suspect who is discarding cellphones to avoid surveillance.
During a closed-door House GOP meeting Tuesday morning, several members expressed deep concerns about the planned Senate amendments. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin called the changes a “poison pill” during the meeting, said a leadership aide who declined to be named because he was not authorized to be quoted publicly.
Republican Sen. John Barrasso attended the meeting to represent Senate leaders and indicated that the message was received, the aide said.
But on the Senate floor, John Cornyn of Texas urged senators not to turn their backs on what he characterized as an effort to improve the bill “because of some fantasy the House will simply reject any changes at all.”
The bill before the Senate, known in the House as the USA Freedom Act, would reauthorize several surveillance provisions that have expired. But it would phase out NSA phone records collection over time. It passed the House overwhelmingly and is backed by President Barack Obama. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who doesn’t believe it goes far enough, blocked consideration Sunday night.
If the measure becomes law over the next few days, the NSA will resume gathering the phone records, but only for a transition period of six months, in the House version, or a year in a proposed Senate amendment.
If the bill fails amid congressional politics, the collection cannot resume, period.
The amendments proposed by Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the intelligence committee, were designed, he said, to win quick House approval. One requires the director of national intelligence to certify that the NSA can effectively search records held by the phone companies in terrorism investigations. Another would require the phone companies to notify the government if they change their policy on how long they held the records.
A third, to extend the transition from six months to 12 months, promises to be controversial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it is needed, but Mike Rogers, the NSA director, has said six months is sufficient.
Still another proposed GOP amendment would reverse a House proposal to make public major rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Senate Democrats rose to oppose that Tuesday, arguing that keeping the rulings from public view allows for the creation of “secret law.” One reason the phone records collection was so controversial, they argue, is that it was done under a secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, accused Senate Republicans of engaging in “the politics of saving face,” adding that the amendments “may tank the USA Freedom Act in the House.”
Whatever the outcome, the past two days in Congress have made this much clear: The NSA will ultimately be out of the business of collecting and storing American calling records.
This turn of events is a resounding victory for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who disclosed the calling records collection in 2013. Senators on the intelligence committee had been issuing veiled and vague warnings about the phone records program for years.
But it was Snowden who revealed the details. He’s now living in Moscow, having fled U.S. prosecution for disclosing classified information.
Still, the USA Freedom Act would hardly count as a defeat for the NSA, Snowden’s former employer. NSA officials, including former director Keith Alexander, have long said they had no problem with ending their collection of phone records, as long as they can continue to search the data held by the companies, which the legislation allows them to do.
The USA Freedom Act doesn’t address the vast majority of Snowden revelations, which concern NSA mass surveillance of global internet traffic that often sweeps in American communication.
Story by the Associated Press