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US Senate Debates NSA Reforms as Key Program Expires

by Michael Bowman June 01, 2015

The U.S. Senate has advanced a bill to reform the government's domestic surveillance program.

The chamber voted 77-17 to begin debate on the USA Freedom Act, which gives telecommunications companies, rather than the National Security Agency, the task of collecting and retaining Americans' phone records in the fight against terrorism.

The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives, but failed in an initial Senate test vote a little more than a week ago.

On Sunday, the Senate reversed itself hours before the midnight expiration of the existing program, which is now defunct two years after it was exposed by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

For weeks, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had argued for a temporary extension of the NSA's snooping abilities – to no avail. On Sunday, he conceded defeat, saying the USA Freedom Act is better than the alternative: no telephone records being collected at all.

"Allow(ing) the program to expire altogether without attempting to replace it, in the face of growing, aggressive and sophisticated threats. That is a totally unacceptable outcome," McConnell said.

The Senate will debate the bill through Tuesday. Should it pass unaltered, it would go to the White House for President Obama's signature.

A statement issued by the White House press secretary after the Senate's action late Sunday urged lawmakers to ensure that what it called an 'irresponsible lapse' in the surveillance program 'is as short-lived as possible.' The statement says: 'On a matter as critical as our national security, individual Senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly. The American people deserve nothing less.'

This turn of events constitutes a major victory for Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who co-authored the bill.

"The USA Freedom Act is a carefully crafted bipartisan compromise that protects Americans' privacy but also keeps this country safe," Leahy said. "This is a bill that does both."

For some, the bill's reforms do not go far enough to protect Americans' civil liberties. Republican Senator Rand Paul, who recently spoke for more than 10 hours on the subject, said the bulk collection of telephone records by any entity is an unconstitutional threat to privacy.

"We are not collecting the information of spies. We are not collecting the information of terrorists. We are collecting all American citizens' records all of the time. Are we going to so blithely give up our freedom?" Paul said. "I'm not going to take it anymore."

Backers of the expired program said it had been much maligned by critics eager to inflame public passions about government snooping.

"A portion of the public has been led to believe that big government is in their bedroom, in their house, in their car, in their phone, that it tracks them wherever they go," said Republican Senator Dan Coats. "It's a bunch of hokum, and it's wrong."

The Senate cut short last week's recess by one day in order to try once again to address the NSA program. The chamber's options were limited, given that the House of Representatives does not gavel in until later Monday. As a result, even if the Senate had voted to extend the program, House consideration would have occurred after it expired.

Last month, a federal appeals court ruled the program illegal. Its expiration means there will be no need for a hearing of the case before the Supreme Court.

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