US: Obama signs bill reshaping NSA phone records program

President signed USA Freedom Act, which will revive and remake the post-9/11 spy program

President Barack Obama has signed legislation reviving and reshaping surveillance laws that expired temporarily Sunday night.

The White House says Obama signed the bill late Tuesday evening, hours after the Senate gave its final approval.

Obama said in a statement that he’s gratified Congress finally approved the bill. He says his administration will move quickly to restore the lapsed surveillance tools.

The law eliminates the National Security Agency’s bulk phone-records collection program and replaces it with a more restrictive measure to keep the records in phone companies’ hands.

Obama had blamed Congress for needless delays and an “inexcusable lapse” in national security tools. But he also praised some senators and House members for working in bipartisan fashion to come up with a compromise.

Congress sent legislation to the president reviving and remaking a disputed post-9/11 surveillance program two days after letting it expire.

The vote in the Senate Tuesday was 67-32. The House already passed the bill.

The legislation will phase out, over six months, the once secret National Security Agency bulk phone record collection program made public two years ago by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

It will be replaced by a program that keeps the records with phone companies but allows the government to search them with a warrant.

Senate Republican leaders initially opposed the House bill, arguing first for an extension of the Patriot Act, the sweeping surveillance legislation passed in the days immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was eventually forced to accept the House version unchanged after senators rejected various last-ditch attempts to amend it.

The legislation would continue other post-9/11 surveillance provisions that also lapsed at 12:01 a.m. Monday. These include the FBI’s authority to gather business records in terrorism and espionage investigations and to more easily eavesdrop on suspects who regularly discard cellphones to avoid surveillance.

The expiration, although brief, provoked an outcry from government officials who contended that Senate inaction put the country at risk, while civil liberties groups cheered the outcome. Presidential candidate Rand Paul, R-Ky., succeeded in setting himself apart from the GOP presidential pack, while for McConnell, the whole episode raised bitter questions about his leadership five months after Republicans retook control of the Senate.

“The Senate should have acted before three national security provisions expired, but we are pleased that this historic piece of legislation is now on its way to becoming the law of the land,” said a joint statement from Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; John Conyers, D-Mich.; Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Sensenbrenner was one of the authors of the Patriot Act.

Two years ago, Snowden revealed details of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program. The Freedom Act will end the phone record operation as previously structured, instead requiring phone companies to retain the records and giving the government the ability to seek access with a warrant from the secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

FISA courts have long come under criticism for granting spy agencies wide latitude in the overwhelming majority of cases it hears.

The American Civil Liberties Union heralded the Freedom Act’s passage by Congress as a sign that Americans are no longer willing to give intelligence agencies carte blanche to collect private data. Still, the ACLU warned that the bill does little to ensure privacy.

“No one should mistake this bill for comprehensive reform. The bill leaves many of the government’s most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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