WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Republican leaders insist that spy agencies continue to have access to data on Americans’ telephone calls despite a court ruling that the practice is illegal, but aides said on Friday they may have to compromise on proposed reforms of the program before it expires on June 1.
Senate aides said the deadline could force supporters and opponents of the bulk data collection program to work out a deal before May ends. In practice the date may be even earlier as Congress leaves Washington on May 22 for a Memorial Day recess.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader, and Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended the data collection shortly after a federal appeals court three-judge panel in New York ruled the practice illegal on Thursday.
“Not only have these tools kept us safe, there has not been a single incidence, not one, of an intentional abuse of them,” McConnell said.
McConnell and Burr vowed to fight efforts to scale back the phone surveillance, a counter-terrorism measure in the USA Patriot Act, known as Section 215. They want it extended, as is, through 2020.
Some Republican privacy advocates have joined liberal Democrats to push for an overhaul, or the elimination, of the bulk data collection, which was exposed in 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who now lives as a fugitive in Russia.
The U.S. House of Representatives votes next week on the USA Freedom Act, a reform bill that would end the bulk collection program and instead give the NSA access to telephone data and other records only when a court finds there is reasonable suspicion about a link to international terrorism.
The measure is expected to pass the House with strong bipartisan support, which bill supporters maintain would increase pressure on McConnell to allow a Senate vote.
It is unclear whether it will get the 60 votes needed to pave the way for its passage in the Senate. If the bill does not pass both chambers the government’s authority to collect the data will expire.
On Friday, the reform effort received important backing from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said in a statement that she was “open to supporting” reforms amounting to what is in the Freedom Act.
Administration officials say President Barack Obama is willing to sign the reform bill. After Snowden’s revelations, the White House said the existing system, under which government agencies collect and store the data, is no longer acceptable.
So far, McConnell is refusing to allow the bill to come up for a vote in the Senate, calling it “untested, untried and more cumbersome.”
Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader, called for an immediate vote on the reforms, saying “it would be the height of irresponsibility” to extend Section 215 of the Patriot Act instead of passing a bipartisan reform law.
Some civil liberties advocates are wary of the bill, saying it still does not adequately protect Americans’ privacy.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.