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Senators push bill to end phone record collection

Sep. 25, 2013 - 08:42PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Spying by the National Security Agency has cost the United States economically and angered allies, a bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday in unveiling legislation that would end the collection of millions of Americans’ phone records and data on Internet usage.

Three Democrats — Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Richard Blumenthal — and Republican Rand Paul outlined their legislation to end longstanding NSA surveillance practices and open up some of the actions of the secret federal court that reviews government surveillance requests.

The lawmakers argued that their bill is the appropriate response to disclosures this past summer about the sweeping surveillance programs — one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.

Wyden said the programs and revelations have undercut U.S. businesses required to provide data to the intelligence community while infuriating foreign leaders. Earlier this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff accused the United States of violating her country’s sovereignty by sweeping up data from billions of telephone calls and emails that have passed through Brazil, including her own.

In protest, Rousseff scuttled a scheduled state visit to the United States.

“This is not a small hiccup,” Wyden told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Efforts to rein in the once-secret surveillance programs have attracted an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, pitting them against House and Senate leaders who have expressed strong support for the NSA programs.

The bipartisan group unveiled the bill on the eve of a Senate hearing with the nation’s top intelligence officials, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, in hopes of jump-starting the debate over the programs.

“Americans with no link to terrorism or espionage should not have to worry that the NSA is vacuuming up their private information,” Udall said.

The bill would change current law to prohibit the bulk collect of Americans’ phone records and their communications data. The government could still obtain records of anyone suspected of terrorism or espionage and of an individual in contact with a suspected terrorist or spy.

Paul said he didn’t understand how a “warrant that has 10 million unnamed people, all customers of Verizon” is consistent with the Constitution.

The legislation also would establish an independent, constitutional advocate to argue against the government in the secret Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court and require the attorney general to declassify court opinions that address significant interpretations of the Constitution or current law.

Blumenthal, who served as Connecticut’s attorney general, said secret courts were one of the reasons the colonists rebelled against the British government.

President Obama has said he might be open to setting up public advocates who could oppose government lawyers at Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court proceedings. But the administration continues to argue that the NSA programs are crucial tools in combatting terrorism.

Prospects for the legislation in the remaining months of the year are unclear as leaders of the congressional intelligence committees are strong defenders of the programs. But the disclosures from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former systems analyst on contract to the NSA, have stirred concerns among Americans that their civil liberties are being violated.

Wyden said that fact was underscored when he was asked about the secret court at the barber shop.

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