US Senate passes bill to end bulk collection of phone records

Senators voted to pass most significant surveillance reform for decades

The US Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would end the bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records, the most significant surveillance reform for decades.

Senators voted to pass the USA Freedom Act, which overwhelmingly cleared the House of Representatives last month and will now head to the White House for Barack Obama's signature.

The passage of the USA Freedom Act paves the way for telecom companies to assume responsibility of the controversial phone records collection program, while also bringing to a close a short lapse in the broad NSA and FBI domestic spying authorities. Those powers expired with key provisions of the Patriot Act at 12.01am on Monday amid a showdown between defence hawks and civil liberties advocates.

In a particular blow to Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, and Richard Burr, the intelligence committee chairman, the Senate rejected a series of amendments that were designed to weaken the surveillance and transparency reforms contained in the USA Freedom Act.


McConnell and Burr had led the effort in recent weeks to reauthorise the Patriot Act in its current form, ignoring the will of their colleagues in the House and a majority of the American public.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, criticized McConnell's "toxic mix of poor planning, misguided bravado and stunning lack of communication with his fellow Republicans".

“The most remarkable think about the events of the past week is that they were utterly and completely avoidable, but Senator McConnell failed to heed the many warning signs that flashed bigger and brighter than the marquees on the Vegas strip,” Jentleson said in an email.

Despite support for the USA Freedom Act from the House, the Obama administration and the intelligence community, McConnell continued to fight changes to the Patriot Act and went from pushing a full renewal through 2020, to a short-term extension to avoid a lapse, and finally to trying to water down the House bill. By the end of it all, the majority leader was left with no other option but to let the USA Freedom Act pass unamended.

Among the amendments that failed were a measure that would weaken the USA Freedom Act’s establishment of a de facto privacy advocate to, in certain cases, argue against the government on behalf of privacy rights; an effort to allow the phone collection program to continue for a year instead of just six months, as proposed by the House bill; and another provision requiring the US intelligence chief to certify the implementation of the new phone-records regime.

During the surveillance battle, McConnell miscalculated the lengths to which his colleague from Kentucky, Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, would go to block any renewal of the Patriot Act without reforms.

Paul has made his longtime opposition to the NSA’s surveillance dragnet a key tenet of his 2016 campaign and followed through on his pledge to let the Patriot Act expire – although he voted against the USA Freedom Act on Tuesday arguing that it does not go far enough.

The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party's nomination in 2016, also voted against the bill for similar reasons.

“We must keep our country safe and protect ourselves from terrorists, but we can do that without undermining the constitutional and privacy rights which make us a free nation,” Sanders said in a statement. “This bill is an improvement over the USA Patriot Act but there are still too many opportunities for the government to collect information on innocent people.”

Other presidential candidates in the Senate were in different camps: the Texas senator Ted Cruz supported the USA Freedom Act, of which he was a co-sponsor, while the Florida senator Marco Rubio opposed the bill, arguing instead for a full Patriot Act renewal.

The US government's bulk collection program was first revealed two years ago by the Guardian, based on documents obtained from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A federal appeals court ruled the program illegal last month, all but ensuring its days were numbered.

Snowden hailed the movements in Congress and the courts as "without precedent" in an interview with the Guardian last month.

“The idea that they can lock us out and there will be no change is no longer tenable,” Snowden said. “Everyone accepts these programmes were not effective, did not keep us safe and, even if they did, represent an unacceptable degradation of our rights.”

Only recently have many lawmakers begun to give Snowden credit for kickstarting the debate. "It is clear we wouldn't be here without that information," Republican senator Jeff Flake told the Huffington Post.

For privacy advocates in Congress, the USA Freedom Act is just the beginning.

Libertarian-minded Republicans in the House, who are allies of Paul’s, said on Tuesday they will attempt to use a must-pass defence appropriations bill as a vehicle to advance more surveillance reforms. Their efforts will include include blocking the NSA from undermining encryption and barring other law enforcement agencies from collecting US data in bulk.

Guardian Services