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House Considers Bill To Stop NSA Bulk Collection Program


The bulk collection of Americans' phone records that Edward Snowden exposed two years ago is dividing the Republican-led Congress. The issue has come to a head because the part of the USA Patriot Act used to carry out that bulk collection expires at the end of the month. Today the House voted overwhelmingly to modify that provision by banning the massive collection of phone data. But Senate GOP leaders want to prolong the program for five more years. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Bob Goodlatte, the Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, led the charge for approving the so-called USA Freedom Act, a bill banning the National Security Agency's bulk collection of what Goodlatte said were millions of Americans' phone records every day.


REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE: Despite changes to the NSA bulk telephone metadata program announced by President Obama last year, the bulk collection of the records has not ceased and will not cease unless and until Congress acts to shut it down.

WELNA: And as Washington State Democrat Suzan DelBene pointed out, just last week a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA's bulk collection program was illegal.


SUZAN DELBENE: But the court refrained from enforcing its decision, instead placing the burden on Congress to protect Americans from unwarranted mass surveillance.

WELNA: Under the bill, the NSA's phone records surveillance would be targeted, court approved, and the data would be held by the phone companies. The White House, privacy advocates, intelligence agencies and private industries have all voiced support for this revision of the USA Patriot Act. Earlier today, House Speaker John Boehner added his endorsement.


HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: All I know is that these programs expire at the end of this month. They're critically important to keep Americans safe. The House is going to act on it. I hope the Senate would act soon as well.

WELNA: The Senate has barely a week to act, though it's not yet clear what it might do. Some Senate Republicans back a bill introduced by majority leader Mitch McConnell. It simply reauthorizes the provision under which bulk collection is carried out. Florida Republican and presidential contender Marco Rubio defended that program last week on the Senate floor.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: There's not one single case that's been brought to us as an example of how this program is being abused. Show me the story. Give me the name. To the world, show us who is this individual that is going out there and seizing the phone records of Americans improperly.

WELNA: In fact, weeks after Snowden's revelation of the bulk collection program, the NSA acknowledged nearly 3000 privacy rule violations over a one year period. Some of them involved spying on colleagues' love affairs. Libertarian-leaning Republicans, including presidential contender Ted Cruz of Texas, are backing the bill that ends bulk collection.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: I think it is important that we protect our constitutional rights and that means ending the federal government's bulk collection of phone metadata of law-abiding citizens.

WELNA: At this point, it appears neither bill in the Senate could get the 60 votes needed to move forward. John McCain, the Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he worries that the provision allowing bulk collection could simply expire at the end of the month and with it, the NSA's ability to track terrorists.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I'm open to any negotiations. I would vote for a straight reauthorization, but there are concerns, and those concerns I think we could address through negotiations.

WELNA: GOP leaders have broached simply passing a short-term extension of the expiring Patriot Act provisions. Opponents say they'd filibuster such a move. They're confident that today's strong show of support in the House for ending bulk collection will force the Senate to follow suit. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.