The U.S. Congress would endanger the nation's security by passing even watered-down legislation to limit the National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic phone records, several U.S. senators said Thursday.
Several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee voiced opposition to the USA Freedom Act, a bill aimed at reining in NSA bulk collection of telephone and other records, even though many civil liberties groups and technology companies have questioned whether the bill would work as its sponsors originally envisioned.
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With the USA Freedom Act, Congress is "compromising to please a skeptical and frequently misinformed public" that's mistakenly worried about NSA surveillance, Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, said during a hearing on the House bill, taking place one year after the first leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were published.
The USA Freedom Act would ban what the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice consider "bulk" collection of phone and business records, said James Cole, deputy attorney general at the DOJ. But Cole parsed the definition of "bulk" collection.
Quoting a House Intelligence Committee report on the USA Freedom Act, Cole said, "Bulk collection means indiscriminate acquisition. It does not mean the acquisition of a large number of communication records." Therefore, the House bill would allow the NSA collection of large numbers of records, if that collection were approved by the U.S. surveillance court.
An amended definition of what records the bill allows the NSA to collect gives the agency wide latitude, said Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat. The version of the USA Freedom Act that passed the House "is not the true reform I've demanded, and many other Americans have demanded, for years," he said.
The House bill is "vague enough to still allow the collection of mass information," Udall said. "The NSA has shown time and time again it will seize on any wiggle room in the law, and there's plenty of that in this bill."
The NSA phone records program helps protect national security, several senators argued, even though critics have found that many of the examples of investigations given to justify the program have only a limited connection to it.
Nevertheless, the Senate should "step back" and reconsider whether to pass the USA Freedom Act, said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican.
"It seems to me this bill is fixing a lot of things that simply aren't broken," Chambliss said. "My name is in [the NSA database] along with everybody else's. But frankly, I'm not worried because I don't talk to terrorists."
The House of Representatives passed a watered-down version of the USA Freedom Act, approved by Obama's administration, in May despite concerns from privacy advocates that it would allow the NSA to continue to collect business records under broad categories.
The CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies urged senators to narrow the definition of records the NSA could search.