U.S. Senate panel passes plan to restrict, not end, surveillance

Reuters

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate IntelligenceCommittee approved legislation on Thursday to tighten controlson the government's sweeping electronic eavesdropping programs,but allows them to continue.

In a classified hearing, the panel voted 11-4 for a measurethat puts new limits on what intelligence agencies can do withbulk communications records and imposes a five-year limit on howlong they can be retained.

Despite growing national concern about surveillance, the"FISA Improvements Act" would not eliminate the program, whichbecame public earlier this year when former National SecurityAgency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information that thegovernment collects far more internet and telephone data thanpreviously known.

"The NSA call-records program is legal and subject toextensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe itcontributes to our national security. But more can and should bedone to increase transparency and build public support forprivacy protections in place," Senator Dianne Feinstein,chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

The act also requires the special court that oversees thecollection programs to designate outside officials to provideindependent perspective and assist in reviewing matters thatpresent novel or significant interpretations of the law.

It also requires Senate confirmation of the NationalSecurity Agency director and inspector general.

It was not clear whether the Intelligence Committee's billwould become law. It must pass the full Senate, as well as the House of Representatives before it could be sent to PresidentBarack Obama for his signature.

It also faces formidable opposition.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and RepublicanRepresentative James Sensenbrenner this week introduced a billto end what they termed the government's "dragnet collection" ofinformation.

Sensenbrenner and Leahy, the chairman of the SenateJudiciary Committee, which also oversees the ForeignIntelligence Surveillance Act, were the primary authors of theUSA Patriot Act implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks toimprove the government's ability to protect its citizens.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, one of the four committeemembers who voted against the intelligence committee'slegislation, said the measure codifies surveillance practicesthat he thinks are too broad.

"More and more Americans are saying that they refuse to giveup their constitutionally guaranteed liberties for theappearance of security; the intelligence committee has passed abill that ignores this message," Wyden said in a statement.

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