Nation

Republicans block NSA overhaul in Senate

“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind out backs,” said Senator Mitch McConnell.
AP
“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind out backs,” said Senator Mitch McConnell.

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a sweeping overhaul of the once-secret National Security Agency program that collects records of Americans’ phone calls in bulk.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans who supported the measure failed to secure the 60 votes they needed to take up the legislation. The vote was 58-42 for consideration.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, worked hard to defeat the bill, which had the support of the Obama administration and a coalition of technology companies, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

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“This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs,” McConnell said before the vote, expressing the concerns of those who say the program is a vital tool in the fight against terrorism.

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Both senators from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, supported it.

Tuesday’s vote only put off a fractious debate over security and personal liberties until next year. While a Republican-controlled Senate is less likely to go along with the reforms that were in the bill, which sponsors had named the USA Freedom Act, the debate could further expose rifts between the party’s interventionist and more libertarian-leaning wings.

Under the bill, which grew out of the disclosures by Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, the NSA would have gotten out of the business of collecting Americans’ phone records. Instead, most of the records would stay in the hands of the phone companies, which would not have been required to hold on to the records any longer than they already do for normal business purposes.

The NSA, Snowden revealed, was systematically collecting such telephone metadata — information about who called whom, but not the content of what was said — from major US phone companies. The program began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, based on an assertion of unilateral executive power by President George W. Bush.

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In 2006, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secretly brought the program under its authority and issued orders under the Patriot Act to companies for the records.

The proposed legislation would still have allowed analysts to perform so-called contact chaining, in which they trace a suspect’s network of acquaintances, but they would have been required to use a new kind of court order to swiftly obtain only records that were linked, up to two layers away, to a suspect — even when held by different phone companies.

In January, President Obama unveiled some changes, including requiring court approval before a new number can be used to query the database, and limiting analysts to scrutinizing the records of callers two layers removed.

The Republican-controlled House passed a version of the bill in May, but it was watered down before passage, losing the support of civil liberties groups. With the bill’s defeat in the Senate, Congress faces a hard deadline for new legislation since the legal basis for the phone records program, a provision of the Patriot Act, expires in June.

After that, when the 90-day orders to phone companies requiring them to turn over their customers’ records expire, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be unable to issue a new round of orders.

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The Obama administration, warning of the potential for “brinkmanship and uncertainty” next spring if the bill was not passed, had strongly urged the Senate to support it.

‘This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.’

And it may not be any easier for a new compromise to be reached over the bill next year. Some of its opponents, like Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, believed it went too far in curbing the NSA. Others, like Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, thought it did not go far enough.

One possibility would be a bill that is scaled back enough to win over more hawkish Republicans, while relying on the votes of some Democrats who were more skeptical of broad-based reform, like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

But resistance from inside the Republican Party has been unrelenting. Before Tuesday’s vote, two former officials from the Bush administration — Michael B. Mukasey, the former attorney general, and Michael V. Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director — essentially called the bill a gift to terrorists in an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal that carried the headline “NSA Reform That Only ISIS Could Love.”