Obama approves sweeping reforms to NSA phone surveillance

Passage of the USA Freedom Act revises the controversial national security policy created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that limits the NSA's telephone data collection practices. NSA

The US National Security Agency has had its wings clipped a bit.

On Tuesday, the US Senate approved the USA Freedom Act, legislation that will curtail the federal government's sweeping surveillance of millions of Americans' phone records.

Later in the day, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

The legislation, which was passed by a 67-32 vote, revises a controversial national security policy put in place by the Patriot Act after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Already heated debate over the programs authorized by the Patriot Act intensified in 2013 after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing the ways in which the secretive US government agency was collecting data.

The leaked documents revealed that, among other things, the NSA was collecting records on nearly every phone call placed in the US and then comparing that against known contact information of possible terrorists. Through the program, the NSA collects metadata -- including what phone numbers were on the call, when the call was placed and how long it lasted -- and saved that in a database.

The bill had the support of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and a host of tech companies, and had the support of the president.

"Glad the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act," Obama wrote in a tweet after the vote. "It protects civil liberties and our national security. I'll sign it as soon as I get it."

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a similar measure last month.

The Freedom Act requires federal agencies to seek a court order on a case-by-case basis to obtain call data from telephone companies. Critics have said a new legal process would be too slow and would hamper the NSA's counterterrorism efforts. Reform supporters, however, have challenged claims about the current program's effectiveness in preventing terror attacks and have said the reform bill would help ensure individual liberties.

Microsoft, among a handful of tech giants fighting for greater transparency after being implicated as a participant in the NSA's controversial data collection programs, applauded the vote.

"We commend Congress for taking action to reform government surveillance practices," Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement. "Today's vote by the Senate on the USA Freedom Act will help to restore the balance between protecting public safety and preserving civil liberties."

Google also voiced its support. "While most of the focus has been on ending the bulk telephony metadata program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, there are other meaningful reforms in the bill for Internet users. The USA Freedom Act shuts the door to the bulk collection of Internet metadata under a separate legal authority that the government relied upon in the past to collect Internet metadata in bulk," said Susan Molinari, vice president of Americas public policy and government relations, in a blog post. "The USA Freedom Act additionally prevents bulk collection of Internet metadata through the issuance of National Security Letters. Not all of these legal authorities expired on June 1, and we are pleased that Congress took the initiative to prevent the bulk collection of Internet metadata under these legal authorities."

The vote was a "milestone," according to ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer. "This is the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978, and its passage is an indication that Americans are no longer willing to give the intelligence agencies a blank check," he said.

Update June 3 at 7:20 a.m. PT: Added the news of President Obama signing the USA Freedom Act into law.