The fight over the spying powers of the National Security Agency is about to face a crucial test.
On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to vote on whether it will debate the USA Freedom Act. The act would make several changes to the controversial intelligence agency.
According to The New York Times, the bill’s supporters say they are close to the 60 votes they need to allow the act to proceed in the Senate, but it’s uncertain whether they will ultimately clear that hurdle. Supporters of the Freedom Act have cobbled together a bipartisan group of senators, however, the proposal has faced criticism on both sides of the aisle.
One libertarian minded lawmaker, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), said he opposed the bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A senior Paul aide told CNN the legislation includes an extension of the Patriot Act that was unacceptable to the senator.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who will become majority leader in January, announced Tuesday he’ll oppose the legislation. He warned potential curbs to NSA surveillance would undermine the US fight against the Islamic State jihadists (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
“There is a legitimate debate to be had over the proper balances to strike in our democracy. We continue to have it. We should. But the opponents of this collection program have not provided any examples of the National Security Agency intentionally spying on innocent civilians,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, according to his office. “And at a moment when the United States is conducting a military campaign to disrupt, dismantle and defeat ISIL, now is not the time to be considering legislation that takes away the exact tools we need to combat ISIL.”
Privacy rights activists, influential editorial boards, and the tech industry have nevertheless cheered the bill, sponsored by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vermont), as an important step to rein in some of the NSA’s most controversial surveillance techniques. Some of these techniques were highlighted by documents leaked by famed NSA contractor Ed Snowden in 2013.
According to the Times, the act would implement a number of notable reforms:
* Require the NSA to “ask phone companies for the records of a specific person or address when it is searching for terrorists, instead of scooping up all the records in an area code or city.”
* Force the agency to “show why it needs those records, and to disclose how much data is being collecting.”
* And “create a panel of advocates to support privacy rights and civil liberties in arguments before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; currently, there is no one to offer opposition to government requests before the court.”
The House already passed their own version of the Freedom Act earlier in the year. If the Senate ultimately approves Leahy’s bill, the two houses of Congress will meet to bring together the two pieces of legislation. If the bill eventually reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, he’s set to sign it.
The White House said in a statement Monday night that it “strongly supports” the bill, which the administration framed as an important balance between national security concerns and privacy rights. Furthermore, the administration warned crucial surveillance infrastructure will expire without new legislation.
“In sum, this legislation will help strengthen Americans’ confidence in the Government’s use of these important national security authorities. Without passage of this bill, critical authorities that are appropriately reformed in this legislation could expire next summer,” the White House said. “The Administration urges Congress to take action on this legislation now, since delay may subject these important national security authorities to brinksmanship and uncertainty.”
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