House Judiciary to move on NSA reform bill

 

The House Judiciary Committee this week will mark up a stalled bill to rein in the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence operations.

The move announced on Monday amounts to a major step forward for reform at the embattled spy agency, after months of scrutiny from Capitol Hill and international outrage over its surveillance programs.

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Since last October, Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s (R-Wis.) USA Freedom Act has sat untouched in the Judiciary Committee, even as 143 other lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors. The bill has been heavily championed by privacy and civil liberties advocates, who say that it is the best of the many competing reform efforts in Congress.

Sensenbrenner, the original author of the Patriot Act, will introduce a substitute amendment on Wednesday on behalf of committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

“Over the past several months, we have worked together across party lines and with the Administration and have reached a bipartisan solution that includes real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency, while preserving our ability to protect America’s national security,” the six lawmakers said in a joint statement on Monday.

“We look forward to taking up this legislation on Wednesday and continuing to work with House leaders to reform these programs,” they added.

The path forward for the bill comes more than a month after the White House called for the NSA to end the collection and storage of information about people’s phone calls. The “metadata” program, revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, collects data about which numbers people dial, how often and for how long, but not the content of their phone calls.

Intelligence agency leaders say the controversial effort is critical to connecting suspected terrorists, but civil liberties advocates say it could violate the constitutional right to privacy.

In addition to ending the phone records program in line with the president’s recommendation, the bill would also make it more difficult to spy on people “reasonably believed to be in the United States,” adopt new standards for national security letters used by the FBI and make changes to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees and approves the NSA’s work.

It would also give liability protection to companies that hand information over to the government and allow the government to compensate phone companies for the time and work required to hand over information.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, but it has failed to move forward.