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GOP Blocks Senate Bill Limiting NSA Surveillance Practices


And there's been a setback for those hoping to end the National Security Agency's massive collection of U.S. phone records. That data collection was first revealed last year by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Last night, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have kept those records in the hands of the phone companies, not the NSA. Joining me now to consider what this might mean is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly got stopped last night on the Senate floor?

WELNA: Well, Renee, this is a bill that sponsors call the USA Freedom Act, and that name is a twist on the post-9-11 USA Patriot Act, which has been the basis for the kind of surveillance programs most Americans knew nothing about until Edward Snowden's revelations. The bill aimed to stop the NSA from collecting from phone companies and then storing, for five years, the records of calls that people like you and me make. Instead, the NSA would have to get a court order to search for a specific set of phone records, and it would have to request the records from the phone companies. But 41 Republicans and one Democrat refused last night to let the Senate proceed with the bill.

MONTAGNE: Well, why did Republicans stand in the way of this bill going forward? I mean, didn't the Republican-run House pass similar legislation this year?

WELNA: Well, House Republicans and Democrats did pass their version of the USA Freedom Act in May. Of course, that was before Islamic State fighters started beheading captive Americans. And Senate Republicans argued yesterday that this legislation would make it harder to go after those insurgents. But perhaps more importantly, last night's vote occurred as Republicans prepared to take the reins in the Senate starting in January. And many of them preferred to sort this issue out when it's their party that will be calling the shots rather than trying to reach some kind of compromise during this lame-duck session of Congress.

MONTAGNE: Right. So a bill that would have kept the records in the hands of the phone companies - not giving them to the NSA - OK, that's been blocked. So does this mean the NSA can keep scooping up and storing Americans' phone records?

WELNA: Yeah. It means the NSA can keep doing it for now, but Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the NSA says gives it the authority to carry out the program, expires on June 1. And unless it's either reauthorized by Congress or lawmakers come up with possibly another way for the NSA to search phone records without actually storing that so-called metadata, that's what's going to be the case. One issue that had not been resolved to the satisfaction of lawmakers on either side of the aisle was whether the phone companies would be required to hang onto those records and for how long. Right now, they generally keep those records for only a year and a half.

MONTAGNE: And, David, just briefly, what groups do you expect will be pressuring next year's Republican-controlled Congress to curtail NSA's activities?

WELNA: Well, the phone companies will certainly keep pushing for new rules. They don't want their customers thinking they're happy with the status quo. And you can also expect big digital technology firms, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, to continue advocating more restrictions on the NSA because those firms are worried their own reputations could be damaged by the data-mining that's carried out by spy agencies. And of course, privacy rights and civil liberty groups will keep pushing as well.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Welna. Thanks much.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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