WASHINGTON (AFP) - In a major congressional step towards curtailing widespread surveillance of millions of Americans, a House panel voted on Wednesday to end the dragnet collection of telephone metadata.
The rare unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee provides strong bipartisan support for a measure that is backed by civil rights groups and could serve as a blueprint for a bill to be sent to President Barack Obama's desk that would ultimately halt the controversial intelligence policies.
The USA Freedom Act would forbid the National Security Agency's systematic scooping up of phone metadata - which includes numbers dialed, duration and times of calls, but not content.
It would require a secret surveillance court to issue an individual warrant, based on "reasonable articulable suspicion," for each request by intelligence agencies to scour the database, which should be done only in relation to an existing investigation.
It would also boost transparency of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, create a panel of legal experts to ensure the FISA court adheres to privacy and constitutional rights, and allow communications firms, such as those ordered by the government to hand over data, to release more information about such requests.
"Today's bill unequivocally ends bulk collection (and) makes it crystal clear that Congress does not endorse bulk collection," the measure's author, House Republican Jim Sensenbrenner said.
Mr Sensenbrenner was also a primary author of the Patriot Act that passed Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and which broadened agencies' intelligence-gathering powers.
But he became a forceful advocate for changing the law after NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year revealed the extent of the snooping on Americans.
"The government has misapplied the law that we passed," overstepping its bounds to violate the privacy rights of millions of Americans with no suspicion of or connection to terrorist activities, he said.
"We urge the House and Senate to move expeditiously on this legislation so that we can begin to restore confidence in the way intelligence is gathered and protect the privacy rights of all Americans," Mr Sensenbrenner, Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte, and others on the panel said in a joint statement.
But the outcome in Congress is far from finalized, with a similar competing measure in another House panel set for a vote on Thursday.
Snowden's stunning revelations prompted Mr Obama to call for comprehensive reforms to how intelligence agencies operate in the United States. Both House panels say their legislation aligns with Mr Obama's priorities, but the White House has not publicly endorsed either bill.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy hailed the House bill's advancement as "historic," and said his panel will consider the issue this summer, when he will press for additional reforms.