Senate Votes Against Bill To Curb NSA's Bulk Collection of Phone Records

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Getty Images

The Senate voted Tuesday night to block the advance of the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a bill that would curb the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, more than a year after the scope of the practice was exposed by Edward Snowden. With 58 yeses to 42 nos, the bill did not receive the 60 votes necessary to advance to a vote.

While the bill would have still allowed the government to obtain thousands of call records with a single warrant, it proposed numerous privacy reforms including narrowing the definition of an appropriate surveillance target and barring access to a server providers' entire customer base or to a "city, state, ZIP code or area code," adding a panel of civil liberties advocates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to present opposing arguments, and giving tech companies additional methods for disclosing information that the government forces them to hand over about customers.

Some, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, have argued that the bill would benefit enemies of the United States, such as the Islamic State (ISIS.) In an op-ed written in The Wall Street Journal Monday, former National Security Agency (NSA) director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey called the proposed reform something "that only ISIS could love." But Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the senator who introduced the bill to the Senate back in July, rejected this claim during the debate period prior to voting.

"We learned the bulk phone records had not, as previously advertized, thwarted 54 terrorist attacks, or even dozens, or even a few," Leahy said. "It may have possibly helped on one."

While some senators agreed reform was necessary, many did not think the bill was sufficient. "Why do we have to rush this through in a lame-duck session?" Dan Coats, R-Indiana asked. "I urge my colleagues to think through something that we are going to regret later."

But Ted Cruz argued, "The bill is not perfect, but in my view we should take it up and consider reasonable amendments on the floor."

Some civil liberties advocates joined Leahy in his disappointment that the bill did not reach a vote.

"We're disappointed that this preliminary effort to pass bipartisan legislation to limit government surveillance was blocked, despite support from President Obama, the Director of National Intelligence, the business community and a coalition of groups of all political leanings," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office said in a statement following the vote.

"Allowing NSA surveillance to continue unchecked does real harm to Americans. Constant surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment, chills free speech, imperils freedom of the press, and is an affront to the Constitution. Tonight the Senate voted to maintain a status quo that undermines American technology and consumer privacy and hampers innovation. Though this vote is a setback, it will not stop the push for reform."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement that it hopes the bill would be reintroduced in the remainder of the legislative session with stronger amendments.

The next question on the surveillance agenda? Whether Congress will allow section 215 of the Patriot Act--the section that contains the NSA's legal authority to collect Americans' phone records--to expire in June.