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The Cable

Congress Passes Overhaul of NSA Surveillance Program

Ending more than a week of intense debate, the Senate voted on Tuesday to limit the federal government’s vast surveillance powers while keeping many powerful snooping programs intact -- a compromise meant to balance civil liberties concerns with the intelligence community’s insistence that it needs the tools to prevent future attacks against the United States.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17:  The sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol building on the morning after a bipartisan bill was passed by the House and the Senate to reopened the government and raise the debt limit, on October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama signed the bill into law, that will fund the government until January 15, 2014 and allow the government to pay bills until February 7, 2014.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: The sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol building on the morning after a bipartisan bill was passed by the House and the Senate to reopened the government and raise the debt limit, on October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama signed the bill into law, that will fund the government until January 15, 2014 and allow the government to pay bills until February 7, 2014. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ending more than a week of intense debate, the Senate voted on Tuesday to limit the federal government’s vast surveillance powers while keeping many powerful snooping programs intact — a compromise meant to balance civil liberties concerns with the intelligence community’s insistence that it needs the tools to prevent future attacks against the United States.

Passage of the bill marks the most sweeping surveillance overhaul effort since the signing of the Patriot Act in the panicked days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It will end the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of millions of American phone records, which will instead be compiled and stored by individual phone companies. The NSA will need to obtain a warrant to access the records.

In a statement on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said he would sign the bill as soon as he receives it.

The bill’s passage in a 67 to 32 vote is a rebuke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who begrudgingly accepted a vote on the USA Freedom Act after it received a groundswell of support from House Republicans and the White House. Another major catalyst for the bill’s passage was Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who forced the expiration of key Patriot Act provisions on Sunday night.

McConnell wanted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which would preserve the NSA’s broad bulk collection powers. The USA Freedom Act amounts to a compromise: ending the bulk data collection program, while keeping many of the NSA’s other surveillance powers intact. That’s a win for the nation’s spies, who admit privately that the phone program — while easily the highest-profile of those revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden — is actually far less important to them than the programs that will remain in place.

House Speaker John Boehner applauded the bill’s passage shortly after the vote. “This legislation is critical to keeping Americans safe from terrorism and protecting their civil liberties,” he said in a statement. “I applaud the Senate for renewing our nation’s foreign intelligence capabilities, and I’m pleased this measure will now head to the president’s desk for his signature.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a staunch privacy advocate, also applauded the vote but criticized some aspects of the bill, including its failure to end so-called “backdoor searches,” which allow the government to review Americans’ communications without a warrant.

Though additional surveillance reform is unlikely to happen in the near future, Wyden pledged that “the fight to protect Americans’ constitutional rights against government overreach is not over.”

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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