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Washington • The White House on Thursday urged passage of legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee that would prohibit collection of Americans' phone records without cause, a move that comes hours after a federal appellate court ruled such action unconstitutional.
The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would end bulk collection of Americans' telephone metadata while also providing more oversight, transparency and accountability, according to the senators.
Thursday's ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government had stretched the legal authority under the Patriot Act to gather such data domestically. It was the first appellate court to weigh in on the metadata collection, which had been approved by a secret court and made public only through leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Lee and Leahy said shortly after the ruling that the "dragnet collection" of such phone records is "unnecessary and ineffective," and now a court says it's illegal.
"Congress should not reauthorize a bulk-collection program that the court has found to violate the law," the senators said in a statement. "We will not consent to any extension of this program."
Separately, Lee said that the 2nd Circuit should be commended for its ruling.
"This decision only makes passage of my bill, the USA Freedom Act, more urgent," Lee said, "because the bill would address the court's legal concerns while giving intelligence agencies the clarity they need to protect national security."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest tweeted Thursday that President Barack Obama "believes we must be vigilant on terror threat" and also said that the nation needs reform measures on government surveillance and "he meant it." Congress should pass the Freedom Act, Earnest added.
Earlier in the week, Earnest said the White House was supportive of a bipartisan movement in Congress to put in place the reforms Obama spoke about last year.
"Our posture toward this is that this common-sense reform legislation that has bipartisan support," Earnest said, "is an important step in trying to reach the balance strike the right balance between ensuring that our law enforcement and intelligence officials have access to the information they need to keep us safe while also safeguarding the privacy of the American people."
The House Judiciary Committee passed a version of the USA Freedom Act last week and a broad coalition of senators from both parties has signed up to push for a vote in the Senate. Beyond Lee and Leahy, that group includes tea-party darling GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as well as Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota and Chuck Schumer of New York.
"Bipartisan reform of the NSA's bulk-data collection practices is on the table," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday. "It would be the height of irresponsibility to extend these illegal spying powers when we could pass bipartisan reform into law instead."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, however, favor reauthorizing the Patriot Act's Section 215 that the government has used to collect the metadata. McConnell introduced a bill in April that would keep the program running through 2020.
Three provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, are set to expire June 1 unless Congress acts.