WASHINGTON: The US Senate passed landmark legislation Tuesday that ends the government's bulk telephone data dragnet, reining in the most controversial surveillance program since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, just days after key portions of the Patriot Act expired.
The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, which also reauthorises key national security programmes that had lapsed early this week. With the Senate rejecting Republican attempts to modify the bill, it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The USA Freedom Act, which passed 338-88 with broad bipartisan support, is seen as a big win for privacy and civil rights advocates who see bulk data collection and storage as unconstitutional government overreach
The White House backs the reforms, saying the bill protects privacy while preserving essential national security authorities.
The measure now heads for a vote in the Senate, where the clash between reformists and supporters of the intelligence community, coming within the context of warnings on the increasing digital reach of the Islamic State terror group, transcends party lines.
And far-left liberals and staunch conservatives, often at odds on most major legislation, have united in opposition against the domestic NSA spying.
The bill, which focuses on people in the United States and not overseas, would amend controversial sections of the USA Patriot Act which passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and which expired on June 1.
The reforms would explicitly prohibit the mass collection of telephone metadata — numbers, time and duration of calls — by the National Security Agency, as well as electronic data such as emails and web addresses.
“Americans’ liberty and America’s security can co-exist,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who voted for passage.
“These fundamental concepts are not mutually exclusive.”
The reforms scrap the bulk collection detailed in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, replacing it with a targeted program that allows intelligence agencies to collect data from specific individuals or groups, but only with prior approval of the secret national security FISA court.
The data dragnet was operating in complete secrecy after 2001 and under the supervision of the FISA court since 2006. It was consistently renewed by the Bush and Obama administrations.