The U.S. Senate has voted to move ahead with a bill that would end the ability of spy agencies to collect Americans' telephone records in bulk and install a more targeted system, although a political fight looms over potential changes to the bill. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) The procedural vote of 83-14 limited debate on legislation known as the USA Freedom Act but arguments over how to balance Americans' concerns about privacy and fears of terrorism, which had already held up the bill, could stall it further. Three domestic surveillance programs authorized under the USA Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been shut down since Sunday, after the Senate missed a deadline to extend legal authorities for certain data collection by the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Senate security hawks have proposed four amendments they say would plug important holes in the surveillance system outlined in the Freedom Act, which passed the House of Representatives by a 338-88 vote on May 13. Among other things, their amendments would give the National Security Agency 12 months, instead of six, to wind down its existing collection of bulk telephone "metadata." They also want the Director of National Intelligence to certify that the new system works. "Before scrapping an effective system that has helped protect us from attack in favor of an untried one, we should at least work toward securing some modest degree of assurance that the new system can, in fact, actually work," Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. Privacy advocates, however, who have opposed the program since it was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden two years ago, have balked. They say the changes would weaken privacy protections in the Freedom Act and hold up the bill. "All of the amendments would delay passing an excellent piece of legislation, one that's been worked on by Republicans and Democrats for months and months, some would say years," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, an author of the Freedom Act. In a May 20 letter to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the NSA's director, Navy Admiral Michael Rogers, said the agency, with cooperation from telecommunications providers, could transition to the new system within the 180-day time frame set out in the bill passed by the House. Another amendment would strip a provision allowing outside experts on privacy and civil liberties to argue in some cases before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.