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Senate passes Franken-backed bill reforming NSA surveillance

Franken said measures in the bill would allow Americans “…to decide for themselves if the right balance is being struck between national security and privacy.”

National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

On Tuesday, Congress passed the first comprehensive surveillance reform package since the broad scope of National Security Agency activity was revealed in 2013. After what was at times a dramatic and frustrating saga at the Capitol, the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act — after it had stalled for weeks — with bipartisan support. The bill reforms surveillance powers originally granted to the NSA by the Patriot Act. It now heads to President Obama’s desk, where he is expected to sign it.

Sen. Al Franken was a lead proponent of the bill, and, along with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, wrote sections that dealt with how government agencies disclose their data collection procedures. Before the vote, Franken took to the Senate floor to convince his colleagues to pass the bill without delay, and without amendments pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), which were mostly small changes, including a provision that would’ve given the NSA a full year to transition to the new program instead of six months.

McConnell’s amendments “would weaken the bill in unacceptable ways, and they would only serve to prolong and deepen the uncertainty around the reform and continuation of important national security authorities,” Franken said. “Down the road we will have the opportunity to revisit these issues as needed,” including the further improvement of transparency provisions, Franken said.  (The Senate ended up rejecting McConnell’s amendments.)

Franken, who serves as Ranking Member on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has been vocal on privacy issues for years. Before he was a senator, he was an outspoken critic of the Bush-era Patriot Act.

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When the breadth and depth of NSA surveillance was exposed, however, Franken was more measured than some of his colleagues, prompting some in the media to brand him as the NSA’s “one liberal friend,” as National Journal put it.

Indeed, in June of 2013, Franken told WCCO, “I have a high level of confidence that this is used to protect us, and I know that it has been successful in preventing terrorism… There are certain things that are appropriate for me to know that is not appropriate for the bad guys to know.” Later that year, he introduced a bill that would have required the NSA to disclose how many people are targeted by surveillance programs, among other things. The bill failed to advance.

After Franken’s speech on Tuesday, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) took the floor and began his remarks by thanking him for playing a leading role in crafting the legislation. Franken, Leahy said, “worked very, very hard to get us where we are” on surveillance reform.

The bill passed on a 67–32 vote. Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined her colleague Franken in voting for the measure.

Following the bill’s passage, Sen. Franken praised it, saying that measures he helped write would “let Americans know how many people’s records are being collected…allowing them to decide for themselves if the right balance is being struck between national security and privacy.”