The Senate Intelligence Committee voted Thursday to advance legislation that would endorse a National Security Agency program to collect the phone records of nearly every American while strengthening privacy protections for the Americans whose data is gathered.
The bill stands in stark contrast to legislation introduced Tuesday by a different group of bipartisan lawmakers that would end the call-records program. The competing approaches ensure a robust congressional debate over the proper scope of NSA surveillance and over reforms to enhance transparency and accountability.
The FISA Improvements Act, which passed out of committee on an 11 to 4 vote, would also strengthen oversight of overseas intelligence collection conducted under presidential authority. Such surveillance has been in the news in recent weeks, following leaks of NSA documents by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Though targeted at foreigners overseas, that collection has raised questions about how much data from Americans are captured in the process and how well the data are protected from misuse.
“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said. “But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”
The bill would write into statute the authority for NSA to collect records in bulk under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act — with protection for Americans whose records are harvested. The phone data program, once classified, gathers in a database billions of call records from U.S. phone companies. The data includes numbers dialed and the calls’ time and duration, but not their content.
The legislation would retain the current policy of keeping the call records for up to five years but would require the attorney general’s approval to query records older than three years. It also would require that each number run against the database be reviewed by the surveillance court that oversees the NSA to ensure that there is “reasonable, articulable suspicion” it is linked to a terrorist.
Also, under the bill, the NSA director and inspector general would require Senate confirmation. And procedures for intelligence gathering under Executive Order 12333, which defines the basic powers and responsibilities of the intelligence agencies, would undergo a review every five years.
Privacy advocates criticized the effort. “This bill is being presented as a way to narrow the NSA’s authorities by imposing more oversight and requiring more transparency,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “But at its core, the bill would legalize a program — bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — that is on shaky legal footing at best. In that sense, the bill not only preserves the NSA’s powers, it enhances them.”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who voted against the bill, failed in an effort to supplant it with competing legislation that would halt the call-records program. The USA Freedom Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), also would impose shorter sunset periods on certain surveillance authorities. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).
“The NSA’s ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans’ private information does not respect our constitutional values, and needs fundamental reform — not incidental changes,” Udall said in a statement.