Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — After much wrangling over the need to balance national security and privacy concerns, the Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that aims to protect America against suspected terrorists.
The USA Freedom Act now requires overzealous intelligence and law enforcement officials to get a court order before probing phone databanks and engaging in counterterrorism activities such as wiretaps.
The Senate approved the bill 67-32, ending the brief lapse after it allowed the Patriot Act to expire Sunday at midnight. And previously, the House of Representatives passed a version of the bill with 338 Democrats and Republicans.
President Barack Obama, who pledged to address National Security Agency reform, signed the bill on Tuesday. This is one of the most sweeping surveillance reform in a generation.
Several surveillance programs were illegal because it violated Americans’ civil liberties, according to many conservatives on the hill. The most controversial surveillance tool, they said, is the sweeping power under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which requires the government to collect bulk phone records — including the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call — and give sweeping power with wire taps.
It is a relief to millions of Americans because it reigns in the government’s surveillance powers.
“After 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,” Obama said.
Other observers said this is “sensible” NSA reform that will restore public confidence in the country’s surveillance programs. That’s because the USA Freedom Act overhauls the government’s collection of bulk phone records and instead requires telecommunications companies to hold the data. The NSA now has six months to end its bulk collection program. Additionally, the Act restores the “lone wolf” provision, which allows law enforcement officials to follow suspects in contact with other terrorist groups.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said this law “balances the need to protect the country with the need to protect the privacy of the American people.”
However, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), along with other conservatives who wanted to add more power to the NASA, disagreed with the majority.
“I cannot support passage of the so-called USA Freedom Act,” McConnell said. “It does not enhance the privacy protections of American citizens, and it surely undermines American security by taking one more tool from our war fighters at the wrong time.”
Other proponents of civil liberty chimed in on what is considered a major reform of the way the NSA conduct its programs.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the law “is critical to keeping Americans safe from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties.”
In a press release Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Director Jameel Jaffer said: “”This is the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978, and its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check.”
Intelligence officials will continue using Section 215 and the roving wiretap provision for investigations that began before the June 1.
The program is one of the most controversial spying programs exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks nearly two years ago.
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