Legislation in the Senate to reform the government's sweeping surveillance powers would do little more than codify current practices, critics say.


In a 11-4 vote, the Senate's intelligence committee on Thursday approved legislation that would increase transparency of the National Security Agency but also would enshrine the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records.

The FISA Improvements Act would prohibit the NSA from amassing communication records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act except under certain circumstances, according to a statement released by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who introduced the bill.

The bill would also prevent the NSA from storing telephone records for more than five years.

“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," Feinstein said.

Civil liberties advocates, however, alleged the legislation would justify the NSA's controversial bulk collection practices while adding insignificant oversight.

"It's fitting that Senator Feinstein took Halloween to remind us why she's the favorite Senator of the NSA's spooks," Demand Progress executive director David Segal said. "Using squishy public relations language, she is striving to leave the impression that her bill reins in the NSA's mass surveillance programs -- but it does nothing of the sort. Rather, it entrenches -- and specifically codifies -- bulk data collection and other surveillance practices that have never before been explicitly described in a statute, and which we contend are unconstitutional. Lawmakers must immediately recognize this legislation for the sham that it is -- and reject it outright."

Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who voted against the bill, said the "NSA's ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform - not incidental changes."

[Digital surveillance image via Shutterstock]