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US Senate takes timid step towards intel reform

US Senator Dianne Feinstein (C) arrives for a markup of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence October 29, 2013 in Washington, DC
US Senator Dianne Feinstein (C) arrives for a markup of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence October 29, 2013 in Washington, DC

US lawmakers took a step towards reforming the way Washington gathers intelligence Thursday, a cautious first gesture in the wake of leaker Edward Snowden's bombshell revelations.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's proposed measures fall short of other efforts underway in Congress to end bulk data collection altogether, and also are less than what privacy advocates have been demanding.

But the proposals nevertheless mark a first step towards legislation to address a scandal that has angered America's allies and its own Internet firms, while laying bare the vast scope of US online snooping.

Snowden's leaks revealed that the National Security Agency scoops up private phone and Internet data on millions of people around the world, the vast majority of whom have no connection to terrorism.

Washington's European and Latin American allies were shocked to learn that national leaders were among those whose calls were monitored and in some cases recorded.

In the US capital, while there has been a degree of defensiveness about programs that officials insist are vital to protect America and its allies from terrorism, questions have been asked.

Lawmakers from both the Democrat and Republican camps have expressed skepticism about the secrecy that cloaks the programs and the court that reviews electronic surveillance requests.

Critics say both the court and congressional oversight committees have failed to provide a check on the NSA's eavesdropping powers, and doubt that Thursday's draft plan will make much difference.

But Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein insisted the FISA Improvements Act would increase citizens' privacy as well as tighten oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

It would, for example, require outside experts to review key court findings or interpretations of the law.

It provides for prison terms of up to 10 years for unauthorized access to collected data, and requires an annual public report on the number of investigations made using the NSA database.

"The threats we face -- from terrorism, proliferation and cyber attack, among others -- are real, and they will continue," Feinstein said in a statement after her committee voted 11-4 in favor of the bill.

"Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world."

Critics derided the legislation as a fig leaf draped over a larger problem.

"Unfortunately, the bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee does not go far enough to address the NSA's overreaching domestic surveillance programs," said Senator Mark Udall.

"I fought on the committee to replace this bill with real reform, and I will keep working to ensure our national security programs show the respect for the US Constitution."

Udall backs a rival bill which would put a stop to the bulk data collection and introduce a "special advocate" who works to assure individual privacy and civil liberties.

Senator Ron Wyden, who for years has sought to rein in surveillance, predicted a long battle ahead, telling reporters his top priority was ending spying "on millions and millions of law-abiding Americans."

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