Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 9, 2015

Senate Intelligence Committee Approves Changes to Surveillance Rules

The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a bill aimed at responding to the outcry over the mass surveillance practices of the National Security Agency on Thursday, but critics dismissed it as a minor reworking of the law.

The panel voted 11-4 for the FISA Improvements Act, which would put limits on the use of bulk data collection by the NSA and impose new reporting requirements on the agency’s activities.

It would also require that the National Security Agency director and inspector general be subject to Senate confirmation.

“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security. But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place,” Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement. “This committee has conducted considerable oversight of FISA programs, both before and after recent leaks, and I believe the reforms in this bill are prudent, responsible and meaningful. I look forward to working with Chairman Leahy and the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to move legislation to the Senate floor as soon as possible.”

Though the bill was approved in a closed-door session, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., announced Thursday that he was one of the four “no” votes on the bill, saying in a statement that he did not believe the legislation went far enough to protect the privacy of American citizens. The NSA’s collection of data has come under intense scrutiny over the past year, with multiple reports divulging the NSA’s surveillance of people ranging from regular U.S. citizens to foreign leaders.

“The NSA’s ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans’ private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform — not incidental changes. Unfortunately, the bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee does not go far enough to address the NSA’s overreaching domestic surveillance programs,” Udall said in the statement. “I fought on the committee to replace this bill with real reform, and I will keep working to ensure our national security programs show the respect for the U.S. Constitution that Coloradans tell me they demand. As part of this effort, I will partner with other reform-minded colleagues from both political parties, like Senators [Patrick J.] Leahy, [Ron] Wyden, and [Rand] Paul to continue pushing on the Senate floor for real bipartisan reform that will help keep our nation safe while better protecting our privacy rights.”

It’s possible that the full Senate could debate the security and surveillance issue in the weeks ahead as part of the annual consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act. Sources have indicated that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could bring that bill to the floor before Thanksgiving.

According to a release from the Intelligence Committee, the legislation, if signed into law:

· Prohibits the collection of bulk communication records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act except under specific procedures and restrictions set forth in the bill;

· Establishes criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for intentional unauthorized access to data acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the United States;

· Prohibits the bulk collection of the content of communications under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act;

· Requires an annual public report of the total number of queries of NSA’s telephone metadata database and the number of times the program leads to an FBI investigation or probable cause order;

· Requires that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court impose limits on the number of people at NSA who may authorize or query the call-records database;

· Prohibits any review of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act unless there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” of association with international terrorism;

· Requires that records of each “reasonable articulable suspicion” determination be provided to the FISA Court for review. If the Court disapproves, it may order the destruction of any records produced;

· Mandates the FISA Court impose a limit on the number of contacts (i.e., “hops”) an analyst can receive in response to a query of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act; and

· Imposes a five-year limit on the retention of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and requires Attorney General approval to query records that are older than three years.

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