WASHINGTON — Leaders of a Senate panel that oversees U.S. intelligence issues said Thursday it has approved a plan to scale back how many American telephone records the National Security Agency can sweep up. But critics of U.S. surveillance programs and privacy rights experts said the bill does little, if anything, to end the daily collection of millions of records that has spurred widespread demands for reform.
Legislation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was approved by an 11-4 vote, would increase congressional and judicial oversight of intelligence activities. It also would create 10-year prison sentences for people who access the classified material without authorization, according to a statement released by committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the panel’s top Republican.
Just how far it would scale back the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records was unclear.
The statement said the plan would ban bulk collection of records “under specific procedures and restrictions.” Chambliss spokeswoman Lauren Claffey said some of the telephone metadata collection would continue, so long as intelligence officials followed rules for how it can be used.
Only certain people would have access to the phone data, according to the bill. It also would bar the NSA from obtaining the content of the phone calls. The current program only allows the NSA to collect phone numbers and times of calls and cannot listen in on phone calls without a warrant from a secret court.
“The threats we face — from terrorism, proliferation and cyberattack, among others — are real, and they will continue,” Feinstein said in the statement. “Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world.”
She said “more can and should be done” to increase transparency of the surveillance and build public support for privacy protections.
But Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said the legislation allows the bulk collection to continue under certain safeguards. He called the safeguards a positive first step but said the NSA should stop sweeping up Americans’ phone records and only obtain those that are connected to a specific terror plot.
Privacy advocates who have long called for the end of broad government snooping bristled at the bill, which they said would merely legalize the surveillance that the NSA has quietly undertaken since 2006.
Referring to Feinstein, David Segal, executive director of advocacy group Demand Progress, 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. ... Lawmakers must immediately recognize this legislation for the sham that it is — and reject it outright.”
The Senate intelligence bill rivals one put forward earlier this week, by House and Senate judiciary committees, that would eliminate the phone data collection program that was revealed earlier this year in classified documents that were released to the media by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The dueling legislation means that Congress ultimately will have to decide how broadly the U.S. government can conduct surveillance on its own citizens in the name of protecting Americans from terror threats.
Polls indicate that Americans widely oppose the surveillance program.