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Senate Panel Passes Post-Snowden Intelligence Budget

A Senate committee approved an authorization measure for U.S. intelligence activities that seeks to thwart leaks of classified information and strengthen oversight of surveillance programs in the current fiscal year.

The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 13-2 today to advance the bill, according to a statement from the panel’s Democratic chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. The measure also authorizes spending by intelligence agencies to counteract terrorist threats, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and enhance counterintelligence.

The vote came amid a backlash over revelations that U.S. agencies spied on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and collected phone records on millions of Americans as well as e-mail data. Most of the activities were exposed in media reports based on secret documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who received asylum in Russia.

The spying allegations have prompted calls from some members of Congress for tighter oversight of intelligence agencies, particularly the NSA. Under the bill approved today, the agency’s director and its inspector general would be subject to presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. The agency’s leader currently is appointed by the Secretary of Defense, subject to presidential approval.

Protecting Whistle-Blowers

The legislation also calls for boosting technology capable of detecting leaks of classified information and strengthening legal protections for whistle-blowers, according to Feinstein. It also would empower the director of national intelligence to investigate people who hold security clearances.

Feinstein has defended U.S. surveillance efforts, including those exposed by Snowden, as necessary to fight terrorist threats. Even so, after allegations emerged of U.S. spying on Merkel’s telephone conversations, the senator called for a “total review” of American intelligence programs.

The amount of funding authorized for U.S. intelligence programs is classified, and Feinstein didn’t cite a spending figure. The measure, which is for the 2014 fiscal year that started Oct. 1, still needs approval by the full Senate and must be reconciled with whatever intelligence-spending bill is passed by the House of Representatives.

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