The Senate intelligence committee voted Thursday to officially affirm the National Security Agency’s ability to collect records of Americans’ telephone calls, but imposes new restrictions on federal authorities who want to sift through the data.
The 11-4 vote marks the first time any part of Congress has officially approved the bulk records collection program, which was a closely-held secret until former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details earlier this year, igniting a fierce public debate over the extent of the NSA’s snooping.
Under the bill, written by panel chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the NSA can continue collecting and snooping much as it has, though it would now have the imprimatur of congressional approval. The agency would have to report regularly to Congress about the number of targets under its phone-records program, and whether that snooping produces any investigative leads.
“The collection of phone numbers, which can be run when a terrorist target in another country calls an American number, is something in my view which protects this country,” Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, told reporters after her committee vote. “I don’t believe this is an imposition on people’s privacy rights.”
The NSA argues that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, passed in the immediately aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, grants the government permission to force companies to turn over their records.
In the case of the phone program, the NSA collects and stores the telephone numbers of parties involved in phone calls and the duration of the calls. The government can query the database to find out who called whom, which officials said can help unravel a terrorist network or plot.
The Senate committee’s work is just the first step toward a final bill — and Mrs. Feinstein faces a formidable foe in Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the Patriot Act.
Mr. Leahy and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chief author of the Patriot Act in 2001, introduced a bill this week that would specifically prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ records.
President Obama and the intelligence community are desperately fighting to preserve as much of the snooping as they can, though they have said they are willing to subject it to more oversight.
Indeed, testifying to the House this week, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, said his analysts could live with only three years’ worth of records.
Mrs. Feinstein’s bill still lets the NSA collect five years of records, though it requires the attorney general to approve queries that delve back more than three years.
Records involving U.S. citizens or legal residents would have to be shared with a secret court, and if the judges determine the information was improperly collected or examined, they could order it destroyed.
The new bill leaves it up to the secret court to determine the number of “hops” that authorities can trace, which signifies how far beyond the initial suspect authorities can go. Some reports said the NSA currently can track up to three hops, meaning anyone called by the suspect, anyone those second-level people call, and anyone those third-level people call.
While the debate in Congress is over how widely the government can snoop on Americans, allies and enemies across the world are upset at reports that U.S. intelligence agencies spy on them — and in particular on their leaders.
China and Southeast Asian governments on Thursday demanded the U.S. clarify news reports that it and four allied nations used their embassies to listen in on phone calls.
U.S. intelligence officials say the outrage is misplaced, arguing that every major intelligence service in the world tries to monitor communications in other countries — particularly when it comes to leaders.