Post-Sept. 11 NSA spy­ing pow­ers are pared back

Congress’ ac­tion, signed by Obama, is hailed as ‘his­toric.’

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mascaro

WASH­ING­TON — Congress gave fi­nal ap­proval Tues­day to the most sweep­ing roll­back of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance pow­ers in the post-Sept. 11 era, clear­ing the way for a new pro­gram that bans the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency from col­lect­ing and stor­ing Amer­i­cans’ tele­phone dial­ing records.

The Se­nate’s 67-32 vote re­flected grow­ing con­cerns about pri­vacy, but also in­creas­ing un­ease among law­mak­ers that Sun­day’s abrupt ex­pi­ra­tion of the sur­veil­lance pro­gram, caused by con­gres­sional dead­lock, posed a na­tional se­cu­rity risk.

The new sys­tem al­lows in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to ac­cess the same kind of call records, but only by re­quest­ing the in­for­ma­tion from tele­phone com­pa­nies with a court or­der.

“It’s a his­toric mo­ment,” said Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who had cham­pi­oned the bill. “It’s the first ma­jor over­haul of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance laws in decades. It adds sig­nif­i­cant pri­vacy pro­tec­tions for the Amer­i­can peo­ple. It’s been a long and dif­fi­cult road, but I’m proud of what the U.S. Congress has achieved to­day.”

Pres­i­dent Obama quickly signed the USA Free­dom Act, which had al­ready passed the House.

“Af­ter a need­less de­lay and in­ex­cus­able lapse in im­por­tant na­tional se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties, 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,” Obama said ear­lier Tues­day.

First dis­closed by for­mer NSA con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den in 2013, the NSA sur­veil­lance pro­gram sparked a na­tional de­bate over where to draw the line be­tween Amer­i­cans’ pri­vacy rights and the fight against

ter­ror­ism.

The gov­ern­ment had been se­cretly col­lect­ing mil­lions of phone records in its pur­suit of ter­ror­ists since 2001. The in­for­ma­tion did not re­veal the con­tents of con­ver­sa­tions, but in­cluded phone num­bers di­aled, calls re­ceived and the time and du­ra­tion of calls.

Obama had sought to re­form the pro­gram, which was en­acted dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter the Sept. 11 at­tacks.

But Obama kept it run­ning while Congress strug­gled to agree on re­forms. Last month a fed­eral ap­peals court ruled that the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion pro­gram lacked legal author­ity.

Cyn­thia Wong, se­nior In­ter­net re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch, said the leg­is­la­tion’s pas­sage marked “what could be a turn of the tide against mass sur­veil­lance. Although the bill’s re­forms are only a mod­est first step, this is the first time Congress has af­fir­ma­tively re­strained the NSA since the at­tacks of Sept. 11.”

Al­most all Democrats sup­ported the re­form bill, but Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing the 2016 GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, were deeply split, yet an­other ex­pres­sion of the divide be­tween the party’s tra­di­tional de­fense hawks and lib­er­tar­ian-lean­ing new­com­ers.

Among those run­ning for pres­i­dent, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sought to ter­mi­nate the pro­gram en­tirely and helped force its ex­pi­ra­tion Sun­day, voted against the bill, as did Sen. Marco Ru­bio (R-Fla.).

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted in fa­vor. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.) did not vote.

The bill will al­low the NSA to tem­po­rar­ily restart its col­lec­tion pro­gram, giv­ing the gov­ern­ment six months to switch to the new sys­tem. The NSA has said such a timeline is suf­fi­cient.

Tues­day’s vote was not with­out a fi­nal stand­off, as Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who fought un­suc­cess­fully to re­new the pre­vi­ous NSA pro­gram with­out change — sought some last-minute amend­ments.

One would have re­quired the direc­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence to cer­tify that a new sys­tem was up and run­ning be­fore aban­don­ing the old pro­gram.

It also would have re­quired the phone car­ri­ers to no­tify the gov­ern­ment of any changes in the way they col­lect and store the in­for­ma­tion. Usu­ally, data are kept for 18 months.

“No­body’s civil lib­er­ties are be­ing vi­o­lated here,” a vis­i­bly frus­trated McConnell said Tues­day. “Be­fore scrap­ping an ef­fec­tive sys­tem that has helped pro­tect us from attack in fa­vor of an un­tried new one, we should at least work to­ward se­cur­ing some mod­est de­gree of as­sur­ance that the new sys­tem can in fact ac­tu­ally work.”

But he faced op­po­si­tion in the House, which had reached a frag­ile bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mise that sup­port­ers said re­spected civil rights while still pro­vid­ing ad­e­quate sur­veil­lance tools to track ter­ror­ists.

“My ad­vice is to take this bill and pass it and send it to the pres­i­dent to keep Amer­ica safe,” said House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy (RBak­ers­field).

With con­cern mount­ing af­ter the NSA pro­gram had been dark for more than 36 hours, sen­a­tors re­jected the amend­ments, which could have pro­longed the de­bate deeper into the week.

“If mem­bers of Congress, par­tic­u­larly Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress, ever want to im­prove their stand­ing among the Amer­i­can peo­ple, then we must aban­don this habit of po­lit­i­cal games­man­ship,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

“It’s time for us to pass this bill.”

Dis­missal of the amend­ments was an­other set­back for McConnell, who had pre­vi­ously failed to per­suade his col­leagues to ap­prove even a short-term ex­ten­sion of the NSA author­ity.

Paul said lit­tle af­ter the vote, but re­leased a new cam­paign ad fo­cus­ing on his ef­forts to shut down the pro­gram.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton (RArk.), among the new gen­er­a­tion of de­fense hawks, said the re­form bill “re­turns us to a danger­ous pre-9/11 mind­set at a time when Amer­ica is still at war with rad­i­cal Is­lam.”

The bill also would reau­tho­rize other parts of the Pa­triot Act that have been less con­tested, in­clud­ing the “lone wolf ” pro­vi­sion, which al­lows the gov­ern­ment to ap­ply for court per­mis­sion to wire­tap an in­di­vid­ual sus­pected of ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties who is not part of a larger group, and an­other that al­lows the gov­ern­ment to con­duct “rov­ing wire­taps” as sus­pects switch phones.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 GOP leader, voted for the bill and said it was prefer­able to a con­tin­ued stand­off.

“While the USA Free­dom Act is not per­fect nor my pref­er­ence, it is bet­ter than al­low­ing our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to con­tinue op­er­at­ing in the dark.”

An­drew Harnik As­so­ci­ated Press

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.), who sought to abol­ish the NSA spy pro­gram and helped force its ex­pi­ra­tion Sun­day, was among 32 sen­a­tors who voted against the bill that was over­whelm­ingly ap­proved Tues­day.

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