Governance & Risk Management , Privacy , Standards, Regulations & Compliance

President Obama Signs USA Freedom Act

Legislation Ends NSA Bulk Collection of Phone Data
President Obama Signs USA Freedom Act
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed to amend USA Freedom Act.

Calling it "sensible reform legislation," President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act hours after the Senate approved the legislation that would restrict the way the National Security Agency collects information about Americans' telephone calls.

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"After a needless delay and inexcusable lapse in important national security authorities, my administration will work expeditiously to ensure our national security professionals again have the full set of vital tools they need to continue protecting the country," Obama said shortly after the June 2 Senate vote. "Just as important, enactment of this legislation will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence in these programs ... and [provide] the American people with additional transparency measures."

Senators, by a 67-to-32 vote, approved the bill after beating back three attempts by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to amend the legislation, which would have diminished surveillance and transparency reforms.

One amendment would have doubled to 12 months the time the NSA would have to end its existing metadata collection program. A second amendment would have changed the way independent advocates in secret surveillance courts would be treated. A third amendment would have required the director of national intelligence to certify that the new phone record system functions properly.

"Before scrapping an effective system that has helped protect us from attack in favor of an untried one, we should at least work toward securing some modest degree of assurance that the new system can, in fact, actually work," McConnell said.

Bans Bulk Collection of Phone Metadata

The legislation replaces provisions in the Patriot Act, enacted after the 2001 terrorist attacks, that expired on June 1, including a section that the Obama and Bush administrations used to justify the bulk collection of metadata on Americans' telephone conversations, which an appeals court earlier this year declared illegal, though it did not stop the program.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the government, with a court order, could compel communications companies to turn over phone records of American citizens suspected of communicating with terrorists. Under the Patriot Act, the government retained the phone records, which the new law prohibits.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the bill's Senate sponsors, characterized passage of the legislation as "an historic moment. ... It's the first major overhaul in government surveillance laws in decades and add significant privacy protections for the American people."

Supporters Celebrate Passage

The USA Freedom Act received support from a number of privacy and civil liberties organizations, though the American Civil Liberties Union opposed it, saying it offered "incremental improvements over the dismal status quo" and did not go far enough to protect individuals' privacy. Instead, the ACLU said the Patriot Act provisions should be left to expire.

But Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised the Senate for passing the bill. "Technology users everywhere should celebrate, knowing that the NSA will be a little more hampered in its surveillance overreach, and both the NSA and the (secret) FISA court will be more transparent and accountable than it was before the USA Freedom Act," she said.

The USA Freedom Act would also renew several less controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that had expired, including one involving roving wiretaps that the FBI uses, after obtaining a warrant, to track terrorism suspects who often change cellphones, and a program to monitor so-called "lone-wolf" suspects who haven't been linked to terrorist groups.

Until former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified government documents two years ago, the NSA bulk collection program remained secret.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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