By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation on Thursday to tighten controls on the government's sweeping electronic eavesdropping programs, but allows them to continue.
In a classified hearing, the panel voted 11-4 for a measure that puts new limits on what intelligence agencies can do with bulk communications records and imposes a five-year limit on how long they can be retained.
Despite growing national concern about surveillance, the "FISA Improvements Act" would not eliminate the program, which became public earlier this year when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information that the government collects far more internet and telephone data than previously known.
"The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security. But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place," Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
The act also requires the special court that oversees the collection programs to designate outside officials to provide independent perspective and assist in reviewing matters that present novel or significant interpretations of the law.
It also requires Senate confirmation of the National Security Agency director and inspector general.
It was not clear whether the Intelligence Committee's bill would become law. It must pass the full Senate, as well as the House of Representatives before it could be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
It also faces formidable opposition.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner this week introduced a bill to end what they termed the government's "dragnet collection" of information.
Sensenbrenner and Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which also oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve the government's ability to protect its citizens.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, one of the four committee members who voted against the intelligence committee's legislation, said the measure codifies surveillance practices that he thinks are too broad.
"More and more Americans are saying that they refuse to give up their constitutionally guaranteed liberties for the appearance of security; the intelligence committee has passed a bill that ignores this message," Wyden said in a statement.