House Votes to Freeze NSA’s Phone Records Collection Program
WASHINGTON, May 13 (UPI) — The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday cast a landslide vote to restrict what’s viewed as the National Security Agency’s boundless ability to collect the phone records of U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes.
The NSA is allowed by the Patriot Act to collect phone records of millions of Americans, including who they contact and how long they communicate. The idea is to catch on to terrorist attacks and prevent them before they occur.
However, the House voiced wide opposition to such unlimited snooping with its vote Wednesday, which was 338-88 in favor of a new law called the USA Freedom Act.
In 2013, former Defense Department contractor Edward Snowden leaked a bulk of classified documents that indicated the NSA was looking in on Americans’ phone activity on a grand scale — a revelation that triggered a national outcry.
Since then, the issue has been loosely split among partisan lines — with most Democrats largely against the bulk collection of phone records and some Republicans in favor of it, citing national security concerns. Wednesday’s vote shows, though, there is clear GOP opposition — at least regarding the lengths the Patriot Act arguably allows the NSA to go with the program.
However, the bill’s support from those Republicans might not be enough to get it to President Barack Obama‘s desk. There are several defense-minded Republicans in the Senate — like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who are expected to fight vigorously to retain the NSA program.
The law enabling the agency to collect phone records will expire June 1 if Congress does nothing to renew or extend it. Some analysts said Congress might issue a temporary extension if lawmakers can’t agree on a resolution before then. Some in Congress have also raised the possibility of a filibuster.
“The programs expire at the end of the month, and they’re critically important to keep Americans safe,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Under the USA Freedom Act, intelligence agencies would need to get court approval for every single U.S. citizen it wishes to collect phone records on — much like the procedure police must use to obtain search warrants.
The big question seems to be whether the bulk records collection is critical in thwarting terrorist attacks. Some believe it is not, and others believe it is so important that it could have prevented 9/11 if it were in place before then.
Supporters say the Patriot Act gives the NSA sufficient authority to monitor citizens’ communications. Opponents say the law gives the agency no such power.
“That program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law,” Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who co-wrote the Freedom Act, said.
“I am incredibly disappointed that we have allowed a program that is something that’s supposed to be so important to our national security to be so ineptly carried out,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said, suggesting that there should be more data collected, not less.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he plans to block any kind of temporary extension unless it was made clear the NSA was overhauling its records collection program. Boehner, however, said he would not allow the Patriot Act to expire — which might indicate a showdown between the House and Senate before the end of May.
Last month, McConnell introduced a bill that would extend the Patriot Act and the NSA’s collection ability until 2020.