The President recently announced his intention to reform telephone metadata collection under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The few bullet points released by the White House make the proposal appear extremely limited; however, it does represent a landmark shift in the debate over national security and civil liberties. There is now essentially universal agreement that we must pass legislation that will amend the telephone metadata collection programs, and that succeeds in convincing the American people that those reforms meaningfully protect our privacy (whether or not they truly do).
There are four serious proposals on the table:
Sen. Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) Senate Intelligence Committee has voted to approve her bill, the FISA Amendments Act, but the senator herself has said she will support the president's plan.
One hundred and sixty three members of Congress have cosponsored the USA Freedom Act, which, although authored months ago by the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the lead sponsor of the USA Patriot Act, is still awaiting action from the judiciary committees.
The leaders of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have introduced the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, cosponsored by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
And finally the president has provided a fact sheet on his plan, but legislative language is still forthcoming.
Of the above proposals, the USA Freedom Act clearly deserves, and enjoys, the broadest support. It is bipartisan, bicameral, and, in stark contrast to the clandestine machinations that define the work of the NSA and its acolytes in Congress, it has been publicly vetted for months. In addition to those 163 members of Congress, dozens of civil society groups and some of the largest tech companies in the country have endorsed it. It ends the NSA's mass surveillance and bulk data collection programs and institutes other safeguards of Americans' privacy rights. It is the measure that most thoroughly comports with the recommendations of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and Obama's NSA review panel. And the American people support it. On February 11, citizens sent nearly 100,000 phone calls and 550,000 emails to Congress in support of the bill. A citizen’s whip count conducted by Demand Progress indicates that the bill would pass in a full House vote.
The stage has been set. The proposals have been laid on the table. The audience is waiting, but there is one powerful player who has not yet revealed his hand: Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
Historically, the committees of jurisdiction for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) are the judiciary committees, yet the Ruppersberger-Rogers proposal was referred to the House Intel Committee. In the eyes of many House Judiciary members, this is because House leadership understands Judiciary to be more favorable terrain for advocates of genuine surveillance reform. Leadership sought to diminish their role.
So now Chairman Goodlatte has three choices. He can stand up for substantive reform of the mass-surveillance programs in the form of the USA Freedom Act. He can wait and pass Obama's narrower reform to the 215 telephone metadata program, which still appears likely to be referred to Judiciary. Or he can simply cede total control over the process to the very Intel Committee whose thorough failure in its charge to check the NSA has precipitated this predicament to begin with.
Chairman Goodlatte must act swiftly and decisively: The Rogers-Ruppersberger proposal will probably receive a vote in House Intel in a matter of days. Yet Chairman Goodlatte has not called for a vote on the USA Freedom Act, even though it is cosponsored by a majority of the members of his committee, including a senior subcommittee chair and former chairman (Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.) and the Ranking Member (Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.).
Until the president put forth a proposal, Chairman Goodlatte could argue that he was waiting to see what the White House would propose. Now all eyes turn to the Chairman to discern whether he'll stand up for privacy rights and jurisdiction of the committee he helms.
Segal, a former Rhode Island state representative, is executive director of Demand Progress, is a 1.5 million member advocacy organization.