U.S. surveillance bill faces tough fight in Senate

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2014 1:57 PM

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to end the bulk collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency appeared to be in jeopardy on Tuesday after senior Republican senators said the measure would benefit Islamic State militants and other enemies of the United States.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell came out strongly against the "USA Freedom Act," which needs several votes from his party to reach the 60 needed to clear a procedural hurdle in a vote in the chamber later on Tuesday.

The legislation addresses privacy concerns raised last year after revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that spy agencies were collecting and storing communications metadata, such as the records of millions of Americans' telephone calls.

If the bill became law, the NSA would have to ask a communications company for the records of a specific person when investigating a terrorism case, rather than indiscriminately sweeping up records.

The House of Representatives passed a similar, but less- restrictive bill earlier this year, and the White House has said it supports the Senate measure.

But McConnell said it would be a mistake to tie the hands of security agencies as they face a brutal organization that on Monday announced it had beheaded a third American in Syria.

"If our aim is to degrade and destroy ISIL, as the president has said, then that's going to require smart policies and firm determination. At a minimum, we shouldn't be doing anything to make the situation worse," McConnell said in a Senate speech.

The measure may never become law if it does not receive enough votes on Tuesday. Following successes in elections on Nov. 4, Republicans will control a majority of seats in the Senate and a larger majority in the House starting in January.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the bill, pressed for passage now. "We have wide bipartisan agreement in both the Senate and the House that bulk phone records collection is not essential," he said.

Many U.S. technology companies also want the changes after seeing their international business suffer as foreign governments worried they would collect data and hand it over to American intelligence agencies.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Storey and Dan Grebler)