The United States on Tuesday renewed most of the spying powers accorded to its various agencies since 9/11, except one, the controversial bulk collection of phone data. Phone companies will collect and store that data — essentially just phone numbers and call duration, as they appear on regular bills companies send their customers — and not content.
The National Security Agency (NSA) will not collect or store that data any more — it will be allowed access only for specific requests cleared by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts.
US President Barrack Obama signed a bill effecting that change, USA Freedom Act, shortly after the senate passed it, overcoming opposition from defence hawks in the Republican party. “I am gratified that Congress has finally moved forward with this sensible reform legislation,” Obama said in a statement calling earlier delays “needless” and “inexcusable”.
Intelligence gathering powers considered key to preventing terror attacks lapsed Sunday night after the senate failed to either extend an existing but expiring law, or replace it. Freedom Act replaces Patriot Act, that, coming in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, had accorded government immense spying powers that had then seemed necessary. They had begun to seem increasingly intrusive, but authorities had managed to hold off critics largely by never fully acknowledging their existence or reach.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden changed that through a series of leaks in 2013, that included monitoring Indian missions in the US and electronic communication from India.
The New York Times described the legislation as “a cultural turning point” coming 14 years after the 9/11 attacks led to the construction of a powerful national security apparatus.
Efforts are on to roll back other portions of that edifice — CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists and interrogation methods came under criticism from a senate body last year. And pressure continues on the Obama administration to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and try its inmates in civilian courts on the mainland.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) speaks to the press in Washington. McConnell, who opposed the USA Freedom Act, was dubbed the biggest political loser after it was passed.