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Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 11:42

Obama signs bill changing surveillance laws

By Associated Press

Obama signs bill changing surveillance laws
A file picture taken on Jan 29, 2010, captures the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryla nd, as seen from the air. (AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB)

WASHINGTON - The US Congress approved sweeping changes Tuesday to surveillance laws enacted after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, eliminating the National Security Agency's disputed bulk phone-records collection program affecting millions of Americans and replacing it with a more restrictive measure to keep the records in phone companies' hands.

Two days after Congress let the phone-records and several other anti-terror programs expire, the Senate's 67-32 vote sent the legislation to President Barack Obama, who signed it Tuesday night.

"This legislation will strengthen civil liberty safeguards and provide greater public confidence in these programs,'' Obama said in a statement. Officials said it could take at least several days to restart the collection.

The legislation will revive most of the programs the Senate had allowed to lapse in a dizzying collision of presidential politics and national security policy. But the authorization will undergo major changes, the legacy of agency contractor Edward Snowden's explosive revelations two years ago about domestic spying by the government.

Senators on the intelligence committee had been issuing veiled and vague warnings about the phone records program for years. But it was Snowden who revealed the details. He's now living in Moscow,

Snowden, reviled by lawmakers of both parties, addressed the vote via video link during an event hosted by Amnesty International. He said the legislation was historic because Americans are questioning long-held assumptions that intelligence officials always act in their best interest.

"For the first time in recent history, we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision and that is a radical change we should seize on, we should value and we should push forward,'' he said.

In an unusual shifting of alliances, the legislation passed with the support of Obama and House Republican Speaker John Boehner but over the strong opposition of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell failed to persuade the Senate to extend the current law unchanged, and came up short in a last-ditch effort Tuesday to amend the House version, as nearly a dozen of his own Republicans abandoned him in a series of votes.

The legislation remakes the most controversial aspect of the USA Patriot Act - the once-secret bulk collection program that allows the National Security Agency to sweep up Americans' phone records and comb through them for ties to international terrorists. Over six months the NSA would lose the power to collect and store those records, but the government still could gain court orders to obtain data connected to specific numbers from the phone companies, which typically store them for 18 months.

It would also continue other post-9/11 surveillance provisions that lapsed Sunday night, and which are considered more effective than the phone-data collection program. These include the FBI's authority to gather business records in terrorism and espionage investigations and to more easily eavesdrop on suspects who are discarding cellphones to avoid surveillance.

The final vote divided Senate Republicans, with 23 voting "yes'' and 30 voting "no,'' and senators seeking re-election in 2016 split on the issue.

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