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Under New Rules, NSA To Again Access Americans' Phone Records


The National Security Agency can once again access your phone records. That power lapsed for almost two days. It is back under new rules. Data about calls can only be stored by phone companies, and the government will need a court order to get it. It's a system laid out in a congressional bill that the House passed weeks ago. The Senate approved it yesterday after days of delay. Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The surveillance blackout lasted only a couple days, but to senators on both sides of the fight, even such a short lapse was a dramatic shift from the political climate they faced in the wake of 9/11. Republican John Cornyn of Texas remembers when the twin towers fell.

JOHN CORNYN: It's pretty stark. I remember watching the TV when my wife wanted my attention - the TV set when the second plane hit the tower just as I was getting ready to announce my Senate race.

CHANG: Cornyn says, back then, the country would've never let an anti-terror surveillance program expire or enacted a law that weakened the government's ability to keep the country safe.

CORNYN: And I hope and pray that we don't experience a successful attack on our home soil because we've essentially given up some of these essential tools in order to detect terrorist activity before it occurs.

CHANG: To many Republicans, giving up the ability to scoop up millions of Americans' phone records is a reckless overreaction. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to restore the surveillance program that had grown up since 2001, but all his proposed changes to the bill failed.

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think Congress is misreading the public mood if they think that Americans are concerned about the privacy implications of this. Let me say again, as other speakers have said repeatedly, nobody's listening to your phone calls.

CHANG: Maybe not, but in the end, most of the Senate thought McConnell was missing the real harm. Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon has been one of the fiercest opponents to the phone records program.

RON WYDEN: The fact of the matter is when the government knows who you call when you call and where you called from, the government doesn't need to be listening to have a lot of private and personal information about those law-abiding Americans.

CHANG: It's a point Edward Snowden made two years ago when he first told the world about the phone records data-gathering under the Patriot Act. And yesterday, Snowden appeared on live video before a London audience, claiming vindication.


EDWARD SNOWDEN: I think it is meaningful, it's important, and actually historic that this has been reputed - and not just by the courts, but by Congress as well, and the president himself is saying that this mass surveillance program has to end.

CHANG: But back in Washington, Snowden was not such a hero in the eyes of the Senate. Democrat Martin Heinrich of New Mexico noted that what Snowden really proved was that data gathered by the National Security Agency was vulnerable to abuse.

MARTIN HEINRICH: One of the lines of argument that you heard again and again on the floor was, why are you concerned about the government holding this data? We're going to make sure that nobody ever accesses it in a way that's not authorized. And I think the behavior and actions of Edward Snowden absolutely destroy that line of argument.

CHANG: The president signed the bill within hours of the Senate vote. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.