Senate Could Vote On NSA Reform By Next Week

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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In one of his final acts as head of the upper chamber, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid added to the docket this week the strongest National Security Agency reform bill to come before Congress yet, which could arrive on the floor for a vote by next week.

Reid took the first steps toward bringing the USA FREEDOM Act to the floor late Wednesday in a surprise move that could spell the end of NSA’s bulk collection and storage of American’s telephone records. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)

“The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done,” Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy — the bill’s chief sponsor in the upper chamber — said late Wednesday according to The Hill. “The answer is yes.”

Earlier this summer Leahy described the bill as “the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act 13 years ago,” and acknowledged the endorsements of privacy advocates, tech companies and the Obama administration for passage of the bill.

The Senate version unveiled over the summer follows the lead established by the House earlier this year, ending the sweeping collection of Americans’ telephone records and moving phone data retention into the hands of service providers, forcing the agency to obtain specific warrants to search for data. (RELATED: House Passes ‘Gutted’ NSA Surveillance Reform Bill)

Leahy added additional provisions that require the signals intelligence agency to implement specific terms into search requests. This is in contrast to the House bill, which some argued made it easier for NSA to conduct bulk searches for anyone falling under generic information like ZIP codes. (RELATED: NSA Reform Bill Could Allow The Agency To Spy On More Phone Calls)

The bill also adds privacy and civil liberties advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves secret government warrants for searches.

Further transparency measures give service providers and tech companies more freedom in reporting the number and type of government requests for data they must facilitate, and mandates that the government reveal the number of people swept up in searches — particularly if they’re American citizens.

Passage of the bill came into question this fall when Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, expressed concerns over the bill’s potential to stifle national security endeavors and make it harder to counter terrorist groups in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (RELATED: Senators Claim passing NSA Reform Could Help ISIS)

The bill could face a filibuster from senators opposed, but movement to floor could also open it up for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to propose amendments.

Whatever fate awaits the bill during the lame-duck session preceding Republicans’ takeover next year, lawmakers only have until June 2015 to come up with an agreement before they lose all of the expanded surveillance powers provided under the USA PATRIOT Act, which will expire without a renewal vote it’s unlikely to receive in a post-Snowden Congress. (RELATED: Lawmakers Push To Pass NSA Bill Before Patriot Act Expires)

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Giuseppe Macri