6 January 2015, GPO: US Congress: Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015 (USA FREEDOM Act) (PDF)

Congress Reins In NSA's Spying Powers

Obama signs bill, which reboots Patriot Act and will phase out the NSA's bulk collection of phone records

By Kristina Peterson and Damian Paletta

June 2, 2015

WASHINGTON--A long-running congressional battle over privacy and surveillance ended Tuesday when the Senate voted to curb the collection of millions of Americans' phone records, the first significant retrenchment of government spying powers since the 9/11 attacks.

The measure, which was signed Tuesday night by President Barack Obama, will reauthorize and reboot the provisions of the USA Patriot Act that lapsed Sunday at midnight, but it will phase out the National Security Agency's bulk phone-records program.

The bill, passed by the Senate Tuesday in a 67-32 vote, will shift storage of the phone records to telecommunications companies over six months.

Supporters said the legislation marked a victory for civil liberties diminished by laws put in place in the wake of the September 2001 terror attacks.

"Today the American people are now safe from the federal government's collection of their personal data," said Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the bill's chief GOP proponent in the Senate.

The House approved the bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, in May.

The bill will require the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain phone records for most counterterror investigations and other probes on a case-by-case basis from telecommunications companies. This would end the nine-year-old practice underpinned by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allowed the NSA to hold the telephone records of millions of Americans, regardless of any person's background or behavior. The bulk data collection didn't include the content of the calls themselves.

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Justice Department and the White House all supported the curbs, a reflection of government officials' shifting stance on surveillance since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's 2013 leaks about secretive data collection.

"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," Mr. Obama said in a statement Tuesday.

Senate passage of the legislation ended an unsuccessful weekslong bid by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to resist, then alter, the House bill.

A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday blocked three amendments supported by the Kentucky Republican and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R., N.C.) to delay and impose new checks on the overhaul of the surveillance program.

Any changes to the bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday would have sent it back to the House, extending the expiration of the surveillance program and other lapsed programs.

Mr. McConnell had faced opposition from a coalition of many Democrats, House GOP leaders and libertarian-leaning Republicans, notably his home-state Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul. The 2016 presidential candidate led an effort that prevented the Senate from extending the Patriot Act provisions, even for a few days, before they lapsed Sunday night.

Mr. Paul's push, a central plank of his presidential campaign, succeeded in part because Mr. McConnell had delayed Senate consideration of the legislation until right before the Patriot Act provisions expired in a bid to unify lawmakers around a short-term extension of current law. Mr. McConnell's strategy backfired when lawmakers from both parties balked at maintaining the Patriot Act without changes.

An embattled Mr. McConnell acknowledged Tuesday he had faced "an uphill battle" to block the House bill, which he has warned would hamstring the government's ability to detect terrorist threats.

"There are a number of us who feel very strongly that this is a significant weakening of the tools that were put in place in the wake of [the September 11 attacks] to protect the country," Mr. McConnell told reporters. "We were not going to just simply roll over and accept the House bill without debating it and attempting to amend it."

Democrats said Mr. McConnell and his allies had miscalculated by trying to oppose a bill popular in both chambers that addressed public frustration with the scope of the government's authority to monitor information about millions of Americans' phone calls.

"Sen. McConnell has bungled this issue from start to finish and now at the 11th hour he's risking our national security just to save a little face," Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said before the Senate voted to block amendments to the House bill.

The amendments blocked in the Senate would have lengthened the transition of the surveillance program to the phone companies to a year from six months and required the companies to notify the government if they planned to hold on to phone records data for fewer than 18 months, among other proposed changes.

With bulk data collection no longer permitted, the government will be forced to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with specific requests for customer data. Telecommunications industry officials have said they would have a little more work tracking down specific call data, but most of the additional burden falls on the government.

Several telecom companies and industry groups declined to comment.

Some Republicans worried that passage of the Senate amendments could have triggered a lengthy back-and-forth with the House, preventing a timely reauthorization of the expired provisions.

"This legislation is critical to keeping Americans safe from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties," House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said in a statement Tuesday. "I applaud the Senate for renewing our nation's foreign intelligence capabilities."

Since the Snowden leaks, the White House has vowed it would be more transparent about the scope of intelligence gathering, and it has declassified numerous executive orders and legal opinions, once kept secret, that revealed some of the Internet and phone records that the government authorized itself to sweep up.

There have been other developments, such as technology companies' reaching a settlement with the government that allowed them to disclose more about the national-security requests for business or personal information. And officials have said they quietly halted the practice of spying on foreign leaders of friendly allies, though many allies remain skeptical about whether surveillance has halted.

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Carol E. Lee contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at and Damian Paletta at