TIME intelligence

Torture Debate Once Again Hinges on a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
Larry Downing—Reuters The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va.

The metaphor comes back

In the debate over the government’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to question terror suspects the classic scenario put forth to defend torture is the “ticking time bomb.” Throughout the 2000s, torture proponents raised the specter of an imminent attack on innocent Americans to argue that coercive tactics might not just be permissible but morally necessary.

In the wake of the release of a Senate report critical of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture the metaphor has returned with a vengeance.

In summarizing the findings Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said that Senate investigators never found a single instance of it happening.

“At no time did the C.I.A.’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques. The Committee never found an example of this hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario,” she said.

But in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal online shortly after Feinstein began speaking, six former directors and deputy directors of the CIA argued that was too narrow of a reading of what a “ticking time bomb” means.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, former directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden wrote that the CIA “had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks,” that Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and reports (which turned out not to be accurate) that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York and evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.

“It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario—every single day,” they wrote.

On page 181, the Senate report notes that the “ticking time bomb” was also used as a justification by former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee in a response to a Department of Justice report. Bybee stated that “the ‘ticking time bomb’ that could justify the necessity defense was, in fact, a ‘real world’ scenario,” arguing that convicted terrorist Jose Padilla was believed to have planted a dirty bomb when he was captured, an account Senate investigators say was “inaccurate.”

According to The New Yorker, the “ticking time bomb” conceit first appeared in a 1960 novel about the counterinsurgency tactics France employed in defending its occupation of Algeria—a fictionalized account that does not appear to have been based in actual events. The scenario enjoyed its greatest notoriety as the central plot device for every season of the fictional show 24. But Senate investigators say that’s where it remains — in the realm of fiction.

TIME intelligence

The Fight Over The Hunt For Bin Laden

Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in April 1998.
AP Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in April 1998

The release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the Central Intelligence Agency’s enhanced interrogation program is rekindling the fight over the use of controversial tactics in the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, even as it sheds new light on the hunt for the al Qaeda leader.

The long-delayed Senate report cast doubts on CIA assertions after the 2011 killing of bin Laden that the interrogation program yielded vital information leading to the identification of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad ai-Kuwaiti, who was killed with the al Qaeda leader by SEAL Team Six operators during the Abbottabad raid.

“A review of CIA records found that the initial intelligence obtained, as well as the information the CIA identified as the most critical—or the most valuable—on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, was not related to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the committee report states. It argues that detainees didn’t begin to provide information on Abu Ahmad until 2003, a year after he had already been made a target of the intelligence agency based off the interrogations of detainees held by foreign governments, and was tracking his phone number and email address. The Committee adds that the CIA either misled or misstated the importance of enhanced interrogation program results in testimony to lawmakers following the bin Laden raid, including claiming the EIT program was successful for detainees before they were even in the agency’s custody.

But in its formal response to the Senate report, the CIA contends that the report overstates the importance of the intelligence possessed by the agency before the use of the tactics. “That intelligence was insufficient to distinguish Abu Ahmad from many other Bin Ladin associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed us to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for Bin Ladin,” the agency said of the pre-2003 intelligence.

One detainee, Hassan Gul, “was subjected to continuous sleep deprivation, facial holds, attention grasps, facial slaps, stress positions, and walling, until he experienced auditory and visual hallucinations.” The other was Ammar al-Baluchi, who was also subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. The CIA claims that Ammar was the first to let on Abu Ahmad’s role as a courier for bin Laden. “Before that, we had only general information [redacted] that Abu Ahmad had interacted with Bin Ladin before the group’s retreat from Tora Bora, Afghanistan in late 2001, when Bin Ladin was relatively accessible to a number of al-Qa’ida figures,” the agency writes.

Gul, the agency said, speculated before being subjected to EITs that Abu Ahmad could be one of three individuals with bin Laden. After subjection to the tactics, he said Abu Ahmad has specifically carried a letter from bin Laden in late 2003, and that he had disappeared in late 2002.

However, both reports concur that EITs did not lead to accurate information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be the key architect of the 9/11 attacks, or Abu Faraj al-Libbi.
Despite undergoing more than 180 waterboardings, Mohammed lied about Abu Ahmad’s role in the al Qaeda organization to interrogators, while Abu Faraj denied knowing him at all, despite Ammar claiming he was the recipient of the letter from bin Laden through Abu Ahmad.

The CIA maintains it is impossible to know in hindsight whether it could have acquired the intelligence from Ammar, Gul, and others without the use of enhanced interrogation techniques or from other sources. But it maintains that “the information we did obtain from these detainees played a role-in combination with other important streams of intelligence-in finding the al-Qa’ida leader.”

Indeed, by all accounts, recognizing Abu Ahmad’s role in the al Qaeda organization led CIA analysts on the path to identifying the compound where bin Laden and his family were hiding in Pakistan. The perhaps unanswerable question is how they got there.

Read the Senate’s accounting of the intelligence leading to the identification of Abu Ahmad.

Read the CIA’s accounting of the intelligence leading to the identification of Abu Ahmad.

TIME intelligence

CIA Misled Congress About Use of Religion, Torture Report Says

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
Larry Downing—Reuters The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va.

The CIA did not give accurate testimony to Congress about how it used religion during its interrogation of detainees, according to a Senate report released today.

The report lists inaccurate CIA testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and describes the incongruencies in a lengthy chart in Appendix 3. One of the sections is titled “The Religious Foundation for Cooperation,” and is found on pages 485-86.

CIA director Michael Hayden testified on April 12, 2007, that an interrogation technique was to “burden” detainees in the name of Allah, or to convince them that Allah has given them the freedom to speak during interrogations:

Director Hayden: “Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point —and that point varies by detainee —their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.”

Director Hayden: “Number one, we use the enhanced interrogation techniques at the beginning of this process, and it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation.”

Vice Chairman [Christopher ‘Kit’] Bond: “Once you get past that time period, once you have convinced them that Allah gives them the green light, that’s when you get the 8,000 intelligence reports.”

Director Hayden: “That’s correct, Senator, when we get the subject into this zone of cooperation. I think, as you know, in two-thirds of the instances we don’t need to use any of the techniques to get the individual into the zone of cooperation.”

But CIA records, according to the Senate report, contradict this testimony. “CIA records do not indicate that CIA detainees described a religious basis for cooperating in association with the CIA’s enhanced interrogation technique,” the report says on page 485.

The report also guts the testimony of a CIA officer who testified in 2007 that a Abu Zubaydah thanked him for this religious burdening: “I will continue to be the religious believing person I am, but you had to get me to the point where I could have absolution from my god to cooperate and deal with your questions,” the officer testified, as explained in Footnote 2646. “So he thanked us for bringing him to that point, beyond which he knew his religious beliefs absolved him from cooperating with us.”

In reality, the report says, Abu Zubaydah “prayed his ‘Istikharah’ (seeking God’s guidance) and was now willing to tell what he really knew,” and “that he had received guidance from God” to cooperate to “prevent his captured brothers from having a difficult time,” and so there are no CIA records to support the officer’s testimony.

TIME intelligence

Here’s What Made George W. Bush Uncomfortable About Torture

George W. Bush
Charles Dharapak—AP President Bush speaks about the war on terror at a hotel in Washington on Sept. 29, 2006.

The CIA’s interrogation and detention programs occurred under President George W. Bush, but even he had reservations, according to a Senate report.

The Senate report released Tuesday says that the CIA did not brief President Bush on specific interrogation techniques until April 2006 and that he expressed reservation about one technique then.

According to footnote 17 on page 18 of the introduction:

According to CIA records, when briefed in April 2006, the president expressed discomfort with the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.”

Footnote 179 on page 40 elaborates that the account of Bush’s discomfort came from en email from a psychologist working as a CIA contractor, who was given the pseudonym “Grayson Swigert” in the report, about a June 7, 2006, meeting the contractor had with the director of the CIA.

The footnote goes on to note that the CIA did not dispute that account, but went on to say that agency records were incomplete and that Bush said in his autobiography that he discussed the program with CIA Director George Tenet in 2002 and “personally approved the techniques.”

Bush first publicly acknowledged the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program in September of 2006.

TIME intelligence

Here’s What Dianne Feinstein Said About the Torture Report

The California Democrat began speaking at length about the report's release Tuesday morning

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the practices detailed in the declassified report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program a “stain on our values and on our history.”

The California Democrat spoke passionately on the Senate floor Tuesday morning as the 600-page report detailing the CIA’s post 9/11-era detainee practices, including torture was released.

The critical report finds that the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding, which the UN says should be classified as torture, and sleep deprivation was “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” The report also found that the CIA’s detention sites were poor and the agency provided inaccurate information about the program to the federal government.

“The implications of this report are profound,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said Tuesday, speaking on the Senate floor. “Not only is torture wrong, but it doesn’t work.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee has faced an uphill battle to release parts of the report, which runs about 6,000 pages in total. Senate Democrats and the CIA have gone back and forth about how much of the report should be released. At one point, Sen. Feinstein accused the CIA of spying on committee members working to declassify documents. In July, CIA Director John Brennan apologized for the spying.

The Pentagon announced last week they had begun warning combat troops to prepare for any backlash from the report. NBC News reported Monday that about 2,000 Marines are on alert in and around the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea.

On Tuesday, Sen. Feinstein said she had gone back and forth over whether the committee should delay the release of the report given the instability across many parts of the world.

”There may never be a right time to release the report,”Feinstein said, but she added that the report is “too important to shelve indefinitely.”

TIME intelligence

A Timeline of the Interrogation Program

The CIA’s controversial interrogation and detention programs lasted from 2002 to 2007, but the full timeline of how it developed and how it ended goes longer than that.

Here’s a look at the key dates in the report.

Sept. 11, 2001: Al Qaeda carries out terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Sept. 17, 2001: President Bush signs a classified covert action memorandum authorizing the CIA to detain terrorists.

Feb. 7, 2002: President Bush signs a memorandum stating that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the global conflict with al Qaeda.

March-April 2002: Abu Zubaydah is captured in Pakistan and transferred to CIA custody. He is interrogated jointly by FBI and CIA officers.

June 2002: CIA officers place Abu Zubaydah in isolation for 47 days. The FBI never returns to the CIA interrogation site.

Aug. 1, 2002: The justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issues two memoranda (one classified and one unclassified) concluding that the CIA’s proposed “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not violate the federal anti-torture statute. The classified memorandum addressed specific techniques, including waterboarding, for use on Abu Zubaydah.

Aug. 4-30, 2002: After a prolonged period of isolation, CIA interrogators subject Abu Zubaydah to near-constant coercive interrogation techniques, including the first application of waterboarding.

September 2002: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham and Vice Chairman Richard Shelby are first briefed on the CIA interrogation program. (Later, Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller are briefed when they become chairman and vice chairman.)

November 2002: After being captured and detained by a foreign country, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri is transferred to CIA custody and transported to the same detention facility where Abu Zubaydah is located. Al-Nashiri is also subjected to the CIA’s coercive techniques, including water boarding. (Interrogations during this period are videotaped.)

November 2002: CIA detainee Gul Rahman dies while being held and interrogated by the CIA at a separate CIA detention facility from where Abu Zubaydah and al-Nashiri are held.

Dec. 28, 2002 – Jan. 1, 2003: Al-Nashiri is threatened with a handgun and drill during a CIA interrogation.

January 2003: The CIA Office of Inspector General begins a review of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

March 2003: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is captured and transferred to a CIA detention site where he is subjected to the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques, including 183 instances of waterboarding.

July 2003: The CIA and some members of the National Security Council meet and reaffirm the use of the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

Sept. 16, 2003: The CIA first briefs the Secretaries of State and Defense on the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, according to CIA records.

May 7, 2004: The CIA’s inspector general completes a review of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

June 2004: The Office of Legal Counsel withdraws its unclassified Aug. 1, 2002 memorandum containing a legal analysis of the anti-torture statute. While the office begins to draft a new memorandum, the CIA continues to interrogate detainees in custody.

August-September 2004: The Office of Legal Counsel issues letters to the CIA advising that the use of the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques against specific, named detainees does not violate the federal anti-torture statute.

Dec. 30, 2004: The Office of Legal Counsel issues a revised, unclassified memorandum that supersedes the withdrawn unclassified August 1, 2002 memorandum.

May 2005: The Office of Legal Counsel provides three classified legal memoranda. The first two, issued on May 10, 2005, address the legality of the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques, individually and in combination, under the federal anti-torture statute. The third memorandum, issues on May 30, 2005, analyzes the techniques under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture.

November 2, 2005: The Washington Post publishes an article about the existence of a secret, global detention and interrogation program run by the CIA.

Nov. 8-9, 2005: Contrary to the direction from the White House and the Office of the DNI, the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, authorizes the destruction of videotapes depicting the use of the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, against Abu Zubaydah and al-Nashiri from 2002.

December 2005: Congress passes the Detainee Treatment Act, prohibiting the use of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” against any “individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government.”

June 29, 2006: The Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, holds that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applies to the U.S. conflict with al-Qaeda and that detention at Guantanamo must comply with the Geneva Conventions.

Aug. 31, 2006: The Office of Legal Counsel issues a memorandum analyzing the application of the Detainee Treatment Act to the conditions of confinement for CIA detainees.

Sept. 6, 2006: Senate Intelligence Committee members other than the chairman and vice chairman are brief on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program for the first time. The briefing was limited, as the administration was preparing for the public acknowledgment of the CIA program by President Bush hours later that same day. In his speech, the President provides specific claims of plots thwarted and terrorists captured, attributing much of this information to the CIA’s use of an “alternative set of [interrogation] procedures.”

Sept. 28-29, 2006: Congress passes the Military Commissions Act, which provides that particular violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions are subject to criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act. The law provided that that president has the authority “to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and to promulgate higher standards and administrative regulations for violations of treaty obligations which are not grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.”

July 20, 2007: President Bush signs Executive Order 13440 stating that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program “fully complies with the obligations of the United States under Common Article 3,” and authorizes the CIA’s continued use of certain interrogation practices as determined by the CIA director. In conjunction with the release of the Executive Order, The Office of Legal Counsel issues a memorandum analyzing the legality of the techniques under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act, and the War Crimes Act.

Dec. 6, 2007: The New York Times reports that the CIA destroyed interrogation videotapes in November 2005. The CIA acknowledges that the interrogation videotapes—depicting CIA interrogations using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002—were destroyed.

Dec. 11, 2007: In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, CIA Director Hayden offers to allow a small number of SSCI staff to review CIA operational cables that describe the interrogation sessions that had been videotaped, given that the video recordings had been destroyed.

Jan. 2, 2008: Attorney General Michael Mukasey selects Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham to lead a criminal investigation into the destruction of interrogation videotapes by the CIA.

March 8, 2008: President Bush vetoes the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, which would have limited CIA interrogations to techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual.

Jan. 22, 2009: President Barack Obama issues Executive Order 13491, rescinding Executive Order 13440, banning the CIA’s detention authority, and restricting the CIA to interrogation techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual.

TIME intelligence

Senate Torture Report Describes CIA Interrogation Program

Senate Democrats say the methods were illegal and ineffective

Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. by the terrorist group al Qaeda, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 500-page assessment of the program of harsh interrogation and detention used by the Central Intelligence Agency from 2002 to 2007 on more than a hundred members of the terrorist organization after their capture.

Based on 6.2 million pages of documents, photos and other CIA files, the report presents evidence that the agency’s interrogation methods were brutal and possibly illegal, that they were poorly managed, and that the agency misrepresented it to the White House, the Justice Department, Congress and the American people. Ultimately, the Senate Democrats conclude the methods used were not effective, and were not worth the costs to reputation and national security that resulted from the program.

Aspects of the detention and interrogation of al Qaeda suspects, according to the report, included: a detainee becoming unconscious during the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, requiring medical attention as he regurgitated air and water; a detainee dying from exposure to extreme cold shackled to the floor in what government observers later described as a dungeon; detainees’ injuries being allowed to deteriorate as part of interrogation; and psychological effects from interrogation including hallucinations, paranoia, self-harm and self-mutilation. The report also finds the CIA at times lost detainees and discovered them only after days of neglect.

President Barack Obama said the report detailed a “troubling” program and showed that “some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values.”

“That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad,” Obama said in a statement.

“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners,” Obama added. “That is why I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the intelligence committee who has spent years fighting CIA and Republican resistance to producing and releasing the report previously said, “If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

Current and former intelligence officials, and Republican members of Congress strongly dispute the characterization of the program and the CIA’s actions, arguing that it produced much of the information that led to the successful efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to roll back the central leadership of al Qaeda. Republican members of the intelligence committee released at the same time a 100-plus page minority report dissenting with some of the findings and conclusions of the Democrat’s document.

The CIA also released a summary of its response to the SSCI report rebutting many of the findings. Of the 20 cases the SSCI report cites to show the CIA program was ineffective, the agency disagrees with all but two. “We acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the Agency made mistakes,” said CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan said the interrogation of detainees “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” The agency argues that it is impossible to say whether the harsh techniques produced intelligence that would otherwise have been obtained through less harsh methods. Brennan said the SSCI report provides an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”

The report is likely to produce extended political battles over what information was known about the CIA program, by whom and at what time. The report finds evidence that both the CIA and some at the White House took steps to limit questions about the legality of the program and the number of senior Bush administration officials who were aware of it. It finds that President Bush first learned of the details of the interrogation techniques in 2006 and appeared uncomfortable with some of them, including the image of a prisoner shackled and having to go to the bathroom on himself.

The underlying question that authors and opponents of the report both would like to see settled in the debate is whether the techniques described in the report should ever be used again. Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and many others argue that it was legal, effective and crucial in the fight against terrorism. Feinstein, President Obama, and many outside human rights groups say the techniques were wrong and crossed the line into torture, violating core American values.

TIME intelligence

New NSA Privacy Chief Promises Transparency

NSA Surveillance-Privacy Report
Patrick Semansky—AP The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.

In a Q&A online, Rebecca Richards promised a new era in transparency at the United States’ eavesdropping agency

The National Security Agency’s newly appointed Civil Liberties & Privacy Officer Rebecca Richards said Monday in an online Q& A she hopes to inject a sense of transparency into the secretive spy agency.

“Until somewhat recently, relatively little information about NSA was public. And the information that was made available rarely discussed the safeguards in place to protect civil liberties and privacy,” Richards said. “One of my goals is to share what NSA does to protect civil liberties and privacy. This will take time, but we must start somewhere.”

Richards conducted an online question and answer session Monday through the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Richards position was create earlier this year following recommendations from the White House on privacy reforms within the NSA. Those recommendations were made in response to revelations of privacy violations contained in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Much of her Q&A was little more than a defense of the agency but Richards did identify her four primary goals as privacy chief.

  1. Advise NSA leadership including the director.
  2. Build systematic and holistic civil liberties and privacy processes.
  3. Improve civil liberties and privacy protections through research, education, and training.
  4. Increase transparency.

Richards also revealed that the NSA is preparing to launch a privacy and civil liberties internship or work exchange program as part of its privacy initiative.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 18

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The worst ceasefire: Russia and Ukraine are both preparing for war as their uneasy peace slips away.

By Jamie Dettmer in the Daily Beast

2. With the rise of legal cannabis, the small-holders running the industry may soon be run off by the “Marlboro of Marijuana”

By Schumpeter in the Economist

3. From taking India to Mars on the cheap to pulling potable water from thin air: Meet the top global innovators of 2014.

By the writers and editors of Foreign Policy

4. Some charter schools promote aggressive policies of strict discipline, and that strategy may be backfiring.

By Sarah Carr in the Hechinger Report

5. As local police forces become intelligence agencies, we need sensible policies to balance privacy and public safety.

By Jim Newton in the Los Angeles Times

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME intelligence

Tech Firms Push NSA Reform Bill as Senate Vote Approaches

The USA FREEDOM Act still faces challenges from both sides

In an open letter to U.S. Senators a powerful coalition of technology companies including Google, Apple, Facebook and others called for passage of the USA FREEDOM Act surveillance reform package as Sen. Harry Reid scheduled a vote to advance the measure Tuesday.

“The Senate has the opportunity to send a strong message of change to the world and encourage other countries to adopt similar protections,” wrote CEOs of the companies comprising the Reform Government Surveillance coalition. The CEOs called the bill “bipartisan” and said it “protects national security and reaffirms America’s commitment to the freedoms we all cherish.” Signatories to the letter include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Twitter’s Dick Costolo and others.

The USA FREEDOM Act is a package of changes to the way the U.S. National Security Agency conducts mass surveillance of American citizens chiefly sponsored by Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D—VT). Debate over the issue accelerated a year and a half ago after leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed vast non-public surveillance programs and duplicity on the part of some officials about the extent of the programs.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D—Nevada) called for a cloture vote on Tuesday to end debate. Cloture requires a 60-vote majority is likely to be the biggest hurdle the legislation would face on its path out of Congress.

Though major interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the President’s own surveillance reform task force have backed the compromise legislation passage is anything but certain. Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D—CA) is reported to have reservations about the bill and other surveillance hawks have expressed outright hostility toward the measure. On the other side of the issue, libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul has said he will oppose the bill for not going far enough to rein the NSA.

In current form the bill puts new limits on the NSA’s ability legally to gather up bulk U.S. phone meta-data and installs special privacy advocates in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that oversees and authorizes NSA activities. The measure also forbids the NSA from storing data it collects in its own computers, instead requiring telecom companies to retain the data for up to five years. Some critics say the measure puts onerous restrictions on the NSA’s ability to protect Americans from harm. Others say the bill actually codifies and formalizes surveillance practices that once existed in a legal grey area.

“This is a first step in surveillance reform. This is by no means the whole kit and caboodle,” Director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office Laura Murphy tells TIME. “For over the last decade we’ve been empowering government with more and more capabilities to surveil with less and less protections for its citizens. This legisaition would mark a departure from the trajectory since 9-11. We think it’s a very important first step.”

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