WASHINGTON – US Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a sweeping overhaul of a National Security Agency program that would have ended the government’s controversial bulk collection of data about Americans.
The vote marks a blow for President Barack Obama, who had supported the reforms, and sets up a showdown in 2015 when crucial surveillance provisions are set to expire.
The USA Freedom Act, also backed by Silicon Valley groups and major technology firms, marked an ambitious bipartisan effort to reform the nation’s surveillance apparatus following the revelations of government spying by former security contractor Edward Snowden.
The measure earned a majority, 58-42, with four Republicans joining all but one Democrat in favor. But it fell short of the 60-vote threshold to overcome blocking tactics.
It would have reined in the NSA, whose clandestine program has been scooping up vast amounts of electronic data on innocent US citizens as it pursues information on terror threats.
It also would have replaced the NSA’s blanket authority with a far narrower one allowing it to obtain call records from phone companies but only in specific cases.
“Obviously I’m disappointed by tonight’s vote,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy.
“This lifelong Vermonter will not give up the fight.”
Proponents had been eager to progress before January, when they envision a more difficult path for the bill in a new Congress controlled by Obama’s Republican foes, after the GOP swept to victory this month in midterm elections.
The bill would have crucially modified the Patriot Act, hastily approved in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the United States, by changing the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to include a panel of advocates who would argue for civil liberties.
The court currently hears only the government’s side in the surveillance cases.
The reforms are likely to face another test next year, as the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which contains the legal justification for the dragnet phone metadata program, comes up for renewal.
The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Saxby Chambliss — who retires next month — defended the bulk collection and stressed Americans have not suffered from abuse of the program.
There has been “not one single case” in which “any American has had their privacy rights breached,” Chambliss said on the Senate floor. “It simply has not happened.”
And incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the reforms could strip intelligence agencies of tools needed to fight extremists like the Islamic State.
Liberty vs Security
The intelligence panel’s chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, had backed the reforms as perhaps “the best opportunity to reform the metadata collection program while maintaining the government’s ability to use this tool to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad.”
She also hailed its transparency clause that would have allowed “private companies to more fully report the number of times they receive government requests for information.”
Senator Ron Wyden, a strong supporter of the reforms, expressed disappointment at the vote but looked forward to the coming debate in full public view.
“Those who value civil liberties and the US constitution will not rest until there is true reform that ends this unnecessary overreach,” he said.
Big-hitters such as Apple, Google and Microsoft have warned that failure to reform will lead to spooked foreign governments canceling billion-dollar contracts with US technology firms.
The House of Representatives in May approved legislation curbing NSA data collection, but only after reforms were significantly watered down through changes demanded by the White House to allow for broader interpretation of which information could be collected.