USA Freedom Act fails in Senate vote

19 November 2014

Legislation to keep most of US citizens' phone records out of government hands yesterday suffered a defeat in the Senate, that dimmed prospects of national security reforms that supporters said would protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens, The Los Angeles Times reported.

A motion sponsored by senator Patrick J Leahy (Democrat-Vermont) yesterday failed to get the necessary 60 votes needed to cut off debate on the bill, with most Republicans voting against. The final vote came up at 58 to 42.

One of its most outspoken opponents, incoming senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky), said stopping the National Security Agency from collecting telephone dialing records "would end one of our nation's critical capabilities to gather significant intelligence on terrorist threats."

"This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs," McConnell said citing beheadings of US citizens in Syria.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced just ahead of the vote that she strongly supported the bill, called the USA Freedom Act.

"I supported the USA Freedom Act because it may be the best opportunity to reform the metadata collection program while maintaining the government's ability to use this tool to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad," she said.

Laura W Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, expressing disappointment in the Senate's action said in a statement: Allowing NSA surveillance to continue unchecked does real harm to Americans,'' Al Jazeera reported.

"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 bill had been supported by technology companies as also civil liberties activists and its failure meant there had been little in the way of policy changes as a result of Snowden's disclosures.

Under pressure, Obama in January moved to curb the NSA's authority with the House in May passing a bill to do so. The NSA continued to collect US landline calling records, though the programme gave no cover to most mobile phone records.

The law authorising the bulk collection, a provision of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, is set to expire at the end of 2015, which meant Congress would need to pass legislation re-authorising the programme for its continuance.

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