- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The NSA’s phone-snooping program is on its last legs after senators voted Tuesday to approve the USA Freedom Act, banning bulk collection of Americans’ data two years after the practice was revealed to the public by Edward Snowden.

President Obama signed the bill late Tuesday, moving quickly to kick-start several Patriot Act powers that expired this weekend after senators missed a deadline for renewing them.

But the bill, which cleared the Senate on a 67-32 vote, puts limits on a key power. Investigators still can demand businesses to turn over customers’ documents and records, but the data must be targeted to individuals or groups and cannot be done indiscriminately.

The National Security Agency must end its snooping program within six months, forcing intelligence officials to set up a system that will leave the information with phone companies. Investigators will be able to submit a query only if they have a specific terrorism lead.

“It’s the first major overhaul of government surveillance in decades and adds significant privacy protections for the American people,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who led a two-year fight to end the NSA’s snooping. “Congress is ending the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records once and for all.”

Supporters of the NSA program predicted that intelligence officials will not be able to get the same kinds of results if phone companies rather than government agencies hold the data.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Obama will be blamed for weakening U.S. security and that the NSA program’s end was in line with the president’s opposition to detaining suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and failing to confront the Islamic State.

“The president’s efforts to dismantle our counterterrorism tools have not only been inflexible, they are especially ill-timed,” Mr. McConnell said.

But it was the majority leader’s miscalculations about scheduling that backed NSA supporters into a corner. Mr. McConnell wanted the entire program to be extended and tried to use the June 1 expiration deadline to force fellow senators into a take-it-or-leave-it choice. But his colleagues, including a large percentage of Republicans, rejected his bid, sending the Senate over the deadline and undercutting Mr. McConnell’s leverage.

On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell made a last-ditch effort to change the bill, doubling the six-month grace period for the NSA and requiring the government to certify that it could keep producing the same results even without storing the phone data itself.

Even some senators who were sympathetic to his cause, though, voted against the amendments, saying any changes would have sent the bill back to the House and prolonged the fight, leaving the Patriot Act neutered in the meantime.

Nearly half of Senate Republicans voted for the USA Freedom Act, joining all but one Democrat and a Democrat-leaning independent.

The vote was a major vindication for the House, which for the second time this year has driven the legislative agenda on a major issue, striking a bipartisan compromise that senators were forced to accept.

The bill also had the backing of the intelligence community, which has assured Congress that it won’t be giving up any major capabilities and can make the new system work even with the data held by phone companies instead of the NSA.

Mr. Obama initially defended the program, but after several internal reviews found it to be ineffective and potentially illegal, he said he would support a congressional rewriting to end the law.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations justified the program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives federal investigators power to compel businesses to turn over customers’ documents and records. Using that power, the NSA demanded the metadata — the numbers, dates and durations involved — from all Americans’ calls.

The information was stored and queried when investigators suspected a number was associated with terrorism and wanted to see who was calling whom.

Backers said the program didn’t impinge on Americans’ liberty because the information, while stored by the government, wasn’t searched until there was a specific terrorism nexus. They said there were never any documented abuses of the program.

But opponents said repeated reviews, including one last month by the Justice Department’s inspector general, found the program has never been responsible for a major break in a terrorism case. Given its ineffectiveness, they said, it was time to end it.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who had been battling behind closed doors for years as a member of the intelligence committee to end the program, said the vote was a first step.

He said he and like-minded colleagues now will turn to other powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that the government uses to scoop up emails — a power Mr. Wyden said is increasingly gathering information on Americans, contrary to its intent.

“This is only the beginning. There is a lot more to do,” he said.

Some of Mr. Wyden’s colleagues in those fights, including Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, voted against the USA Freedom Act.

“Forcing us to choose between our rights and our safety is a false choice,” said Mr. Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination and making his stand against the Patriot Act a major part of his campaign.

Mr. Paul even used the obstruction powers the Senate gives to a single lawmaker to block action Sunday, sending Congress hurtling across the deadline and causing three powers to expire: the records collection, the ability to target “lone wolf” terrorists and the power to track suspected terrorists from phone to phone without obtaining a wiretap each time.

The lone-wolf and wiretap powers were extended without changes.

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