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House to vote on 'watered-down' surveillance limits

 

The House is set to vote on a bill to curb surveillance programs at the National Security Agency on Thursday.

Action on the USA Freedom Act comes nearly a year after leaks about the embattled spy agency shook the globe, and amid concerns from privacy advocates and Internet firms that the once-unanimous bill has been watered down through last minute negotiations between House leadership and the Obama administration.

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The version of the bill headed to the floor has “a secret change made that seems to open the door to bulk collection again,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said, adding that she’s “probably going to vote 'no.' ”

The bill’s critics, including Lofgren, say it was effectively gutted of its most meaningful provisions before reaching the House floor.

While it sailed through both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees with unanimous votes, negotiations over the last week have left a bill that some reform advocates say they can no longer support.

Provisions were removed or edited that allowed companies to report more details about government requests for data, a civil liberties advocate to the federal intelligence court checking the NSA was downgraded to a panel of advisers and prevented “backdoor” searches of U.S. citizens.

On the transparency measures that have been a priority for Lofgren's tech company constituents, the bill “doesn’t really create any improvement over the current situation,” she said. “In fact, it’s probably worse.”

And it “could reopen bulk collection, so are we really doing anything here?” she asked.

Lofgren said she is working to inform members about the changes put into the bill between passing the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees and getting to the House floor.

“There’s a million things going on, so members may not yet even be aware that this is not the bill that was reported by the committee unanimously,” she said.

She noted that certain surveillance authorities are set to expire next year if Congress doesn’t renew them.

“That’s not necessarily a worse alternative,” she said.

Despite some of those criticisms, NSA detractors say the effort is a notch in their belt.

“If this bill passes it will be the first successful assertion of congressional control – of any control – of the intelligence community, since 1978,” when Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“I think that when you combine the various provisions, it will end bulk collection,” he added. “Like I said, I would like to see it strengthened in the Senate. It was somewhat watered down from what we offered, but that was the price of getting it here.”

The bill was written by Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who has said that the intelligence agencies misinterpreted the law and that Congress never meant to give them the authority they have claimed. 

Among his and other critics’ concerns is the NSA’s bulk collection of records about people’s phone calls. Instead of the government retaining data about which numbers people call and how often, it would stay in the hands of private phone companies and agents would only be able to search it with a court order.

President Obama has supported many of the top provisions of the reform and the White House on Wednesday said it deserved a “swift House passage” and should be quickly taken by the Senate.

Leaders on the Intelligence Committee have praised the progress as the model of legislative procedure: different panels weigh in and come out with a bill that meets somewhere in the model.

House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) agreed with that sentiment ahead of Thursday’s vote.

“There are some objections on both sides,” he said, “but that’s a compromise.”

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