US Senate committee backs law to continue phone-record collection

A few days after a bill seeking to end the government’s dragnet collection of phone records has been introduced by US Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the Senate Intelligence Committee has approved the FISA Improvements Act.

The Act is aimed at increasing “privacy protections and public transparency of the National Security Agency call-records program in several ways, while preserving the operational effectiveness and flexibility of this vital national security program.”

“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” commented the Committe Chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein. “But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”

The legislation would leave in place the current bulk communication records collection program, but would prohibit the the bulk collection of the content of communications. It would also require an “annual public report of the total number of queries of NSA’s telephone metadata database and the number of times the program leads to an FBI investigation or probable cause order”, and for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to limit the number of NSA agents who can authorize or query the call-records database.

To review any of the bulk communication records acquired under the US PATRIOT Act, the agents have to have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that the suspect is associated with international terrorism and would have to let the FISC decide on whether that suspicion is, in fact, reasonable.

The legislation would also impose some limits. For example, the FISC will limit the number of “hops” an analyst can do when querying the collected bulk communication records (but it doesn’t say to how many), as well impose as a five-year limit on the retention of the collected bulk communication records.

As regards the protections the bill would offer, the Senate would have to confirm the NSA director and NSA inspector general, and all violation of the law would have to be reported to Congress. The FISC would also be mandated to create a group of experts who would be tasked to provide “independent perspectives and assist the court in reviewing matters that present a novel or significant interpretation of the law.”

A date when the law will be discussed and voted on by the Senate has not yet been set.

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