In a rare show of bipartisan support, members of Congress voted 338 to 88 in approval of a bill that proposes to end the National Security Agency's (NSA) bulk collection of telephone records.
If approved, the USA Freedom Act would altogether stop the agency from gathering all U.S. telephone metadata, which include the phone number, date and time of call, duration of call, but not the actual content of the call. Instead, the bill proposes to create a new system that allows government agencies to obtain telephone data based on a "specific selection term" on a case-by-case basis.
"As we speak, thousands—no millions—of telephone metadata records are flowing into the NSA on a daily basis," Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House judiciary committee, claimed. "Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (It) will not cease ... until Congress acts to shut it down."
The unanimous vote comes as the Patriot Act, the law that authorizes the NSA's bulk telephone data collection program, is set to expire on June 1. It also comes just days after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declared the agency's program illegal.
Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House intelligence committee, said most House members prefer to see the Patriot Act expire in a few weeks than to re-authorize it because they feel the provisions in the USA Freedom Act are not enough to curb what Democrat Rep. John Conyers calls "dragnet surveillance in the United States."
"I think the Senate is ultimately going to pass something like the USA Freedom Act," he said.
However, the bill faces tough opposition in the Senate, where top Republican senators do not want to rein in the mass surveillance of the NSA, a secret program leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden to journalists. Republican Sen. John Cornyn believes the program is essential in maintaining security against terrorist attacks, although officials have acknowledged that it has never foiled a single terrorist attack.
"Some in the intelligence committee have said that the bulk data collection that I have described here briefly has led to a safer United States," said Sen. Cornyn, "and that is because of programs like this that we are much better off than we were pre-9-11."
The NSA's mass telephone surveillance program matches phone calls made abroad with the telephone numbers of known terrorists with the goal of finding local connections to the U.S. The program's supporters say the rise of the Islamic State and its penchant for recruiting Westerners to launch domestic attacks in their own countries make it more important that the NSA can keep track of all terrorist connections to the U.S.