In a closed session, the US Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation that codifies into law the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic telephone metadata.
The bill, sponsored by committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), cements bulk phone metadata collection into the business records provision (Section 215) of the Patriot Act, strengthening NSA surveillance legality allowed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight,” Feinstein said in a statement. “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.”
The committee’s 11-4 vote for passage of the FISA Improvements Act runs counter to legislation introduced by the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees this week. Among other attributes, that legislation – the USA FREEDOM Act – would “end bulk collection under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, in light of the massive intrusion on Americans’ privacy and the lack of evidence of its effectiveness.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-OH), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and co-author of the Patriot Act 12 years ago, has previously said that after Congress amended in 2006 the Patriot Act to authorize broad, secret warrants for most any type of “tangible” records, both the Bush and Obama administrations have misinterpreted the law’s power to allow bulk collection of all phone call records in and out of the United States.
Feinstein’s bill further authorizes such an interpretation into law, which would thwart current legal challenges to the program under those grounds. Though constitutional challenges could still be considered.
The legislation demands for the first time that when the government queries the metadata database, it has to have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of terrorism against the targets. The NSA claims it has followed that guideline thus far.