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Senate passes USA Freedom Act (update: signed by Obama)

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For the first time since the 9/11 attacks, both houses of Congress have agreed to limit the government's domestic surveillance powers. Earlier today, the Senate voted 67 to 32 and passed the USA Freedom Act, echoing the House's vote in May. The bill is designed to counter the Patriot Act's controversial section 215 -- the bit that enabled the NSA to collect phone records en masse, request "roving wiretaps" and seize business files -- just one day after the provision officially expired.

Update: According to several press reports, tonight President Obama signed it into law.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) had been lobbying hard to maintain the Patriot Act, even after the House passed the Freedom Act with broad bipartisan support. He then had to endure fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) filibustering a reauthorization vote last week to ensure that the Patriot Act would expire before it could be reauthorized. What's more, the Senate today also voted down McConnell's three amendments for the Freedom Act. These provisions would have all but gutted the new legislation. They'd have required companies to inform the government six months heads-up if they want to keep call data for less than the requisite 18 months, delaying the Freedom Act's implementation by six months and granting the secretive FISA courts full control over its own proceedings.

It should be noted however, that the passage of the Freedom Act will temporarily restart the Patriot's phone data collection apparatus that expired on Sunday for at least six months while the NSA wraps up the program.

The EFF and ACLU both have hailed the decision as a partial victory for privacy. Per an ACLU statement:

The passage of the USA Freedom Act is a milestone. 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. It's a testament to the significance of the Snowden disclosures and also to the hard work of many principled legislators on both sides of the aisle. Still, no one should mistake this bill for comprehensive reform. The bill leaves many of the government's most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements.

The USA Freedom Act bill now goes to the White House for President Obama's signature. He has been rumbling for the past few weeks about the need to extend the Patriot Act. However he's already said he would and it's hard to imagine that he'd risk going against such a widely supported bill and potentially face an embarrassing veto override vote heading into his final year in office. So, for now at least, American's phone records appear to be safer from the Feds' prying eyes.

[Image Credit: Getty Images]

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