USA Freedom Act would end mass collection of Internet data, bill's author says

The surveillance-limiting USA Freedom Act would address programs like the now-defunct bulk collection of data on Americans’ Internet activities, the bill’s author said Tuesday.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said his bill — introduced in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — would increase the standards for data collection across the board. 

This includes the collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which was first reported in June, and the collection of email data under Section 402 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was discussed in documents declassified by the Director of National Intelligence on Monday.

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According to the documents, the surveillance program that collected records on Americans’ Internet activity — including the data, but not the content, of emails — was discontinued in 2011.

Speaking at a Georgetown University Law Center event on Tuesday, Sensenbrenner said his bill aims to stop the mass spying of Americans under multiple surveillance authorities.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act want to ensure that the intelligence community can’t find new ways to conduct the mass surveillance, he said.

Sensenbrenner said he is optimistic that his bill will pass if members can vote up or down on the floor. “I’d be willing to bet you that if we get that, we win,” he said. 

Sensenbrenner was the primary author of the USA Patriot Act and has been a vocal critic of the intelligence community’s use of the law to justify mass surveillance of Americans.

If Congress had known that the USA Patriot Act would be used to justify bulk collection of data about Americans, it would not have passed the bill, Sensenbrenner said.

“It would have been shot down by an overwhelming vote or never come up for a vote.”

During Tuesday’s event, Sensenbrenner was also critical of Congressional oversight of the surveillance programs, including the classified briefings that members can attend to learn about the programs.

“Usually in these classified briefings, we find out stuff that was in either The Washington Post or The New York Times in the previous days,” he said.

Even if the briefings discuss only things that are already public knowledge thanks to news reports, attendees can be prosecuted for discussing what they hear, he said.

It’s “an attempt by the intelligence community basically to shut us up. … I’m not going to get myself involved in that.”

The intelligence community needs more oversight, Sensenbrenner said. The Senate Intelligence Committee, charged with overseeing national surveillance agencies, “has abdicated leadership and responsibility,” he said, citing the committee’s vote last month to tweak but not end mass surveillance.