President Barack Obama has signed a bill to reform and restart the collection of Americans’ telephone records. The president said the new law, called the USA Freedom Act, “protects civil liberties and our national security.”
Up until this week, the U.S. government collected the phone records as part of a program to prevent terrorist attacks. But Congressional action was required to extend or amend the program.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill ending the govenment's collection of phone records. The legislation requires that private telecommunications companies collect and keep such information nationwide. The House of Representatives had approved the bill several days earlier. The measure also extends two other national security programs that required congressional action to continue.
The new law halts the National Security Agency’s ability to collect telephone numbers, dates and times of calls from Americans who have no ties to terrorism. Instead, it makes telecommunications companies responsible for collecting such information. Under the law, the companies can supply the phone data to U.S. officials only after a secret anti-terrorism court approves a warrant. The court order has to identify either the person or group of people suspected of links to terrorism.
The U.S. telecommunications industry has been publicly silent on the measure. America’s third-largest phone company, Sprint, refused to comment when asked about the legislation.
Many major Internet businesses declared victory with the Senate vote on Tuesday. In a statement, Internet services company Yahoo said, “The USA Freedom Act realizes hard-fought and much-needed wins for Internet users everywhere.” The top lawyer for Microsoft Corporation, General Counsel Brad Smith, also praised Congress. He said the Senate vote “will help restore the balance between protecting public safety and preserving civil liberties.”
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the USA Freedom Act, but said it did not go far enough. Human Rights Watch also released a statement. It said the new law “marks what could be a turn of the tide against mass surveillance,” but fails to correct other modern methods for gathering information.
The U.S. government began keeping records of telephone numbers just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Senate’s vote Tuesday followed days of sharp debate among the lawmakers. Republican Party members were split over their support for strong measures to guard against terrorism and the need for personal privacy protections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned of a less secure America. He called the vote, “a resounding victory for those who currently plot against our homeland.”
“It surely undermines Americans’ security by taking one more tool from our war-fighters, in my view, at exactly the wrong time.”
But other Senators, like Democrat Richard Blumenthal, praised the measure as a safeguard for privacy.
“We need to strike a balance that protects very precious constitutional rights and liberties. After all, what does our surveillance and intelligence system protect if not these fundamental values and rights of privacy, and liberties that have lasted and served us well?”
To get to a final vote, the Senate had to find a way to end Republican Senator Rand Paul’s efforts to delay congressional action. He objects to the collection of phone records by business or government as an unconstitutional violation of Americans’ privacy.
I’m Marsha James.
VOA’s Michael Bowman and Zlatica Hoke reported on this story. George Grow adapted their reports for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in This Story
liberties – n. political rights
warrant – n. a court order
surveillance – adj. intelligence-gathering; watching someone carefully
precious – adj. extremely valuable or important