A U.S. Congress committee has overwhelmingly approved legislation designed to stop the bulk collection of U.S. phone records by the National Security Agency.
The 25-2 vote in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee sends the USA Freedom Act to the House floor for a vote. The two votes against the bill came from lawmakers who had argued for stronger protections for civil liberties.
The legislation is a stronger version of a similar bill that passed the House last May but stalled in the Senate, sponsors said. However, several efforts to further strengthen privacy protections by amending the bill failed in committee. Opponents said changes would upend a carefully crafted compromise with House Republican leaders who have threatened to kill an amended bill.
"The USA Freedom Act ends bulk collection, increases transparency and stops secret laws" made in the U.S. surveillance court, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and primary sponsor of the bill.
The NSA's collection of huge numbers of U.S. telephone records relies on a "blatant misreading" of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, added Sensenbrenner, the primary author of that 2001 law. The USA Freedom Act would "reestablish a proper balance between privacy and national security."
Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate introduced versions of the USA Freedom Act earlier this week. Starting in mid-2013, leaks from former agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has conducted mass collection of U.S. telephone records, but not of the content of phone calls.
The committee struck down a handful of amendments designed to strengthen privacy protections or further limit NSA collection of U.S. residents' communications or records. A much-debated amendment would have prohibited the FBI and other agencies from searching the content of email messages, text messages and phone calls belonging to U.S. residents when those communications are swept up in a second NSA program targeting foreign terrorists.
That NSA program, separate from its collection of so-called metadata of phone records, allows the FBI access to the content of "tens of thousands" of emails and other communications, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. The USA Freedom Act is a "vast improvement" over the ongoing NSA phone records program, but "the idea that this bill ends bulk collection ... is a fantasy," she said.
The amendment, offered by Lofgren and Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, would have also prohibited U.S. government agencies from pressuring tech vendors into building surveillance back doors into their products. In recent months, the FBI and other officials in President Barack Obama's administration have called on tech companies to allow law enforcement access to encrypted communications on smartphones.
The House, last June, overwhelmingly approved a similar amendment in a Department of Defense funding bill, Lofgren noted, although the amendment was stripped out before final approval.
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