Obama signs new curbs on NSA sur­veil­lance into law


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Tues­day signed into law land­mark leg­is­la­tion end­ing the gov­ern­ment’s bulk tele­phone data drag­net, sig­nif­i­cantly re­vers­ing Amer­i­can pol­icy by rein­ing in the most con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance pro­gram since 9/11.

The bill was given fi­nal pas­sage ear­lier Tues­day by the U.S. Se­nate, af­ter be­ing ap­proved by the House sev­eral days ear­lier.

The mea­sure reau­tho­rizes key na­tional se­cu­rity pro­grams that had lapsed early this week.

“Glad the Se­nate fi­nally passed the USA Free­dom Act. It protects civil lib­er­ties and our na­tional se­cu­rity,” Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said on Twit­ter shortly be­fore he signed it.

In a sep­a­rate state­ment ear­lier, Obama chided law­mak­ers for the “need­less de­lay and in­ex­cus­able lapse in im­por­tant na­tional se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties,” in the days lead­ing up to the bill’s even­tual pas­sage.

“My ad­min­is­tra­tion will work ex­pe­di­tiously to en­sure our na­tional se­cu­rity pro­fes­sion­als again have the full set of vi­tal tools they need to con­tinue pro­tect­ing the coun­try,” the pres­i­dent said.

The bill halts the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency’s abil­ity to scoop up and store meta­data — tele­phone num­bers, dates and times of calls — from mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who have no con­nec­tion to ter­ror­ism.

It shifts re­spon­si­bil­ity for stor­ing the data to tele­phone com­pa­nies, al­low­ing au­thor­i­ties to ac­cess the in­for­ma­tion only with a war­rant from a se­cret coun­tert­er­ror court that iden­ti­fies a spe­cific per­son or group of peo­ple sus­pected of ter­ror ties.

“It’s a his­toric mo­ment,” Sena- tor Pa­trick Leahy, the se­nior Demo­cratic spon­sor of the bill, said af­ter the 67-32 vote, de­scrib­ing the bill as “the first ma­jor over­haul of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance laws in decades.”

The vote fol­lows days of sharp de­bate on the floor, with many Repub­li­cans split over their sup­port for strong coun­tert­er­ror mea­sures and the need for per­sonal pri­vacy pro­tec­tions in the wake of for­mer NSA con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den’s bomb­shell rev­e­la­tions about the bulk data drag­net in 2013.

Snow­don Hails Change

The fugi­tive Snow­den, al­ter­na­tively seen as a vil­lain by in­tel­li­gence back­ers and a hero by sup­port­ers of stronger civil lib­er­ties, hailed the con­gres­sional ac­tion as “his­toric.”

Speak­ing by live video link from Rus­sia at an Amnesty In­ter­na­tional event in Lon­don shortly be­fore the bill was passed, Snow­den called ef­forts to end mass sur­veil­lance “not enough” but “an im­por­tant step.”

The Repub­li­can di­vi­sions, as well as de­lay tac­tics by Se­na­tor Rand Paul, a 2016 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, forced an ex­pi­ra­tion of the bulk data col­lec­tion pro­gram and two other sec­tions of the USA Pa­triot Act, rov­ing wire­tap and lone-wolf track­ing au­thor­i­ties, all of which ex­pired at mid­night Sun­day.

The leg­is­la­tion that passed Tues­day would reau­tho­rize the lat­ter two pro­vi­sions.

The strong vote marked a stunning re­buke to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell, who sought in vain to amend the bill.

One of the changes would have ex­tended the tran­si­tion pe­riod from six months to a year from NSA stor­age to tele­coms stor­age of the data.

An­other would have stripped out a pro­vi­sion that de­clas­si­fies rul­ings by the se­cret For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance (FISA) Court, a move crit­ics have ar­gued would erode im­por­tant trans­parency that was built into the Free­dom Act.

The changes were re­jected, with at least 11 Repub­li­cans op­pos­ing McConnell to vote against the amend­ments.

‘Step back­ward’

McConnell de­cried the re­form bill as “a step back­ward.”

“This is go­ing to di­min­ish our abil­ity to re­spond to the myr­iad threats we have to­day,” he said in a provoca­tive floor speech in which he ac­cused the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of with­draw­ing from lead­er­ship in the battle against ex­trem­ism.

“It is also a re­sound­ing victory for those who con­tin­u­ally plot against our home­land,” McConnell said.

The vote oc­curred against a back­drop of Repub­li­can in­fight­ing and ten­sion about the bill.

House lead­ers had warned that any change to the bill could de­lay its fi­nal pas­sage or even kill it, which would have meant sev­eral na­tional se­cu­rity au­tho­riza­tions ex­pir­ing for good.

Many ma­jor In­ter­net firms de­clared victory with the con­gres­sional ap­proval.

“The USA Free­dom Act re­al­izes hard- fought and much- needed wins for In­ter­net users ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing pro­hibit­ing the bulk col­lec­tion of user data,” Ya­hoo said in a state­ment.

But Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Marco Ru­bio, a Florida se­na­tor who voted against the act, slammed it as re­sult of “weak pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship.”

“The USA Free­dom Act weak­ens U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity by out­law­ing the very pro­grams our in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the FBI have used to pro­tect us time and time again,” Ru­bio said.

“Un­for­tu­nately, weak pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship com­bined with a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign have now left the Amer­i­can peo­ple less safe than we’ve been at any point since the 9/11 at­tacks,” he added.

Hawk­ish Repub­li­can Se­na­tor John McCain, who also voted against it, added that a di­verse ar­ray of pos­si­ble threats meant the “in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity must have ac­cess to the vi­tal au­thor­i­ties and ca­pa­bil­i­ties they need to stop an­other ter­ror­ist attack be­fore it hap­pens.”

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