Amendments to the USA Freedom Act aim to block the NSA’s ability to siphon and store the so-called metadata on domestic and international communications, instead keeping the information in the hands of telephone and internet companies.
Under the provisions of the bill, the NSA would be required to prove to the courts that an individual is somehow connected with terrorism before it could gain access to their personal information.
The bill reflects recommendations forwarded last year by a presidential Review Group that advised the NSA to stop pressuring tech companies to put “back doors” into their programs, which gives the NSA unfettered access to customers’ records.
Under the NSA’s so-called PRISM program, which former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed last year to intense international condemnation, the NSA collects and stores numbers dialled and call times but does not record the conversations.
However, even that claim of limited powers was challenged in March after it was reported that the NSA operates another program, dubbed MYSTIC, that gives it the power to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call,” according to The Washington Post.
However, records at the time said the NSA is able to retrieve the audio communications from "just one country."
Vindication for Snowden? Human rights groups cheered the early victory, hoping it puts the brakes on the NSA’s global surveillance system that took many people by surprise.
"This is a historic turn of events in our government's approach to counterterrorism policies," Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislation Office, said in a statement.
Bipartisan support of the bill suggested there was enough public demand for the legislation.
“The bottom line is the amended [USA] Freedom Act makes it crystal clear that Congress does not endorse bulk collection and ensures Americans’ civil liberties are protected,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), co-sponsor of the bill, the Washington Post reported.
Now that the issue of NSA surveillance has gained forward momentum in Congress, it will be taken up next by the House Intelligence Committee, which has been kicking around its own NSA bill, entitled “FISA Transparency and Modernization Act,” before moving on to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which last year expressed support of the existing NSA program.
The irony of the Senate Intelligence Committee expressing its support for NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens was revealed in March when Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, was infuriated when it was discovered that the CIA was conducting surveillance of her staff.
"I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles," Feinstein said in a speech on the Senate floor. "I am not taking it lightly."
Snowden, speaking with NBC reporters from his Russian exile, said he found it ironic that Feinstein “does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them."
Feinstein, a Democrat, has been a staunch advocate of spying programs as a necessary weapon in the fight against terrorists.
As for scaling back the powers of the NSA, should Congress fail to pass a bill into law this year, the provision underlying the NSA phone records collection (Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act) will expire in June 2015.
At that point, it will then be up to Congress and the president to decide whether to renew the legislation.