US Congress votes to curb spy programme

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: May 15, 2015 00:06 IST

The US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a legislation to curb NSA’s controversial spying programme under which it collects bulk phone data in America.

For the bill to become law, however, it needs to be passed by the senate, where defence hawks of the Republican Party are opposed to curtailing NSA’s powers.

US Congress has until June 1 to either reauthorise the Patriots Act, which authorises phone data collection and other intelligence collection activities, or replace it.

With just 15 days left before lawmakers leave for their Memorial Day break, a short-term extension was among the options being considered, which Democrats will oppose.

The collection of bulk phone data — numbers and call duration, which the agency has been doing since at least 2006, was made public by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

Opposition to it has since grown. A federal court in New York held it illegal last week, saying the NSA had stretched the limits of the Patriots Act to collect domestic phone records.

The Bill passed by the House, USA Freedom Act, will prevent the NSA from collecting and keeping these records. The agency will be allowed to access them on a case-by-case basis and only against specific requests, approved by the secretive foreign intelligence surveillance court.

The White House has supported the House Bill saying on the eve of the vote, “The President has called on Congress to enact important changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that enhance privacy and better safeguard our civil liberties, while keeping our nation safe.” And it welcomed the “strong bipartisan and bicameral effort that led to the formulation of this bill”.

Support for curbing NSA has indeed come from both Democrats and Republicans. The legislation passed the House with overwhelming support — 338-88.

“That (existing) program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law,” James Sensenbrenner, Republican lawmaker who helped co-author the new bill has said.

But some senators from his own party differ, and strongly. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, is a strong supporter of reauthorising the programme.

His top deputy in the senate, John Cornyn said on the floor of the chamber, “I believe if we allow these provisions to expire, our homeland security will be at a much greater risk.”

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