Divided Senate approves restrictions in post-Sept. 11 surveillance

Published June 3, 2015

WASHINGTON — In a significant scaling back of national security policy formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Senate on Tuesday approved legislation curtailing the federal government's sweeping surveillance of U.S. phone records, and President Barack Obama quickly signed the measure.

The passage of the bill —achieved over the fierce opposition of the Senate majority leader — will allow the government to restart surveillance operations, but with new restrictions.

The legislation — the USA Freedom Act — signaled a cultural turning point for the nation, almost 14 years after the attacks of Sept. 11 heralded the construction of a powerful national security apparatus.

The shift against the security state began with the revelation about the bulk collection of phone records by Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor. The backlash was aided by the growth of interconnected communication networks run by companies that have felt manhandled by government prying.

The storage of those records now shifts to the phone companies, and the government must petition a special federal court for permission to search them for callers linked up to two steps from a terrorism suspect.

Even with the congressional action, the government will continue to maintain robust surveillance power, an authority highlighted by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., whose opposition to the phone records program forced it to be shut down at 12:01 a.m. Monday. Paul and other critics of the legislation said the government's reach into individuals' lives remained too intrusive.

The bill cleared the Senate 67-32 after a fierce floor fight; at least four of those opponents voted no because they felt the bill did not go far enough.

Florida's senators canceled out each other's votes: Republican Marco Rubio voted no; Democrat Bill Nelson voted yes.

Obama was quick to praise passage of the legislation and to scold those who opposed it.

"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. "Just as important, enactment of this legislation will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence in these programs."

The Senate's longest serving member, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said the legislation, which he co-sponsored, represented "the most significant surveillance reform in decades."

The fight for the changes was led largely by Democrats and a new generation of Republicans in the House and the Senate who were elected a decade after the terrorist attacks. Even as threats have multiplied since then, privacy concerns, stoked by reports of widespread computer security breaches at private companies, have shifted public opinion.

"National security and privacy are not mutually exclusive," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a freshman who like several other younger Republicans voted against the senior senator from their state. "They can both be accomplished through responsible intelligence gathering and careful respect for the freedoms of law-abiding Americans."

Tuesday's vote was a rebuke to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader who, until the end in a bitter floor speech, maintained the bill was a dangerous diminishment of national security. Lawmakers in both parties beat back amendments — one by one — that he insisted were necessary to blunt some of the bill's controls on government spying.

McConnell blasted his fellow senators — and by association House Speaker John Boehner, who heartily endorsed the measure — as taking "one more tool away from those who defend our country every day."

"This is a significant weakening of the tools that were put in place in the wake of 9/11 to protect the country," he said. "I think Congress is misreading the public mood if they think Americans are concerned about the privacy implications."

The legislation's goals are twofold: to rein in aspects of the government's data collection authority and to crack open the workings of the secret national security court that oversees it. After six months, the phone companies, not the NSA, will hold the bulk phone records — logs of calls placed from one number to another, and the time and the duration of those contacts, but not the content of what was said. A new kind of court order will permit the government to swiftly analyze them.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for the first time, will be required to declassify some of its most significant decisions, and outside voices will be allowed to argue for privacy rights before the court in certain cases.