Panel unanimously backs NSA reforms

 

A House panel on Wednesday moved forward with legislation to rein in the National Security Agency’s spying, nearly a year after leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden sparked outrage around the globe.

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The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr.’s (R-Wis.) USA Freedom Act, which is strongly supported by privacy and civil liberties advocates.

“The bottom line is that the amended Freedom Act makes it crystal clear that Congress does not endorse bulk collection and ensures American civil liberties are protected,” said Sensenbrenner, who is the original author of the Patriot Act.

Some civil liberties advocates were concerned about changes that were made to the bill in recent weeks to attract committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte's (R-Va.) support.

But the bill “remains by far the most important step taken to roll back the government surveillance of United States citizens since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking member.

The USA Freedom Act won the support of 144 members in the House, but it had sat untouched in the Judiciary Committee since Sensenbrenner introduced it in October, in the wake of Snowden’s revelations.

Sensenbrenner on Wednesday said Snowden’s revelations showed that the government had “misapplied” the Patriot Act. Defenders of the NSA have said that the leaks exposed crucial national security programs, and allowed terrorists and enemies of the country to stay hidden from the United States.

The Judiciary Committee vote sets up a standoff on the House floor, where the USA Freedom Act could come up against an opposing NSA reform bill that the Intelligence Committee will vote on later this week.

Leaders of the two committees will have to work with House leadership to either merge the differing bills, which envision different checks and balances for the NSA and other surveillance operations, or else force Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pick a side. So far, Boehner has been reluctant to weigh in on the details of the NSA reform measures.

“I think this is a very strong win for our civil liberties, but I also think it’s a very strong win for our national security and for intelligence-gathering done the right way, in accordance with the law,” Goodlatte said after the vote.  

“We’ll work with the Intelligence Committee to make sure that they recognize that, and hopefully, we’ll see a good product come out of there.”

Sensenbrenner agreed that the unanimous support was “a testimony to long hours of bipartisan work” and predicted there could be a floor vote on an NSA bill by Memorial Day. 

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA would no longer collect and store “metadata” about people’s phone calls, such as the numbers they call, the frequency of their calls and the length of calls, but not the content of people’s conversations. President Obama has come out in support of ending the program, which was the most controversial operation revealed by Snowden last summer.

Instead, the phone records will stay in the hands of private phone companies and NSA agents would be able to search for a specific number’s data only with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, except in some national security emergencies.

The USA Freedom Act also limits agents to searching numbers two “hops” away from a target, restricts the FBI’s ability to use national security letters, tries to end “back door" surveillance on Americans and adds a team of privacy advisers to the surveillance court, which currently only hears the government’s point of view.

On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an amendment from Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Sensenbrenner and Goodlatte to allow companies to disclose more precise details about the requests they receive from the government.

“Greater transparency would help inform Congress and the public, and would help hold our government accountable,” DelBene said.

Executives at major tech companies have said that the current lack of transparency makes consumers distrust them, thus boosting their foreign competitors.

The Judiciary panel blocked a handful of efforts from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), which would have required “probable cause” before agents can search through phone records and enacted stronger protections against targeting “U.S. persons” through a mechanism that allows searches of foreigners, among other measures

Lawmakers voted down an amendment from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to allow telecommunications companies to negotiate with the intelligence community to store the data longer than 18 months, as current regulations require.

Without the amendment, he said, the bill “makes us less safe,” even though Goodlatte and other opponents said that current law would not prohibit companies from holding data for longer, if they so chose.

Currently, the NSA stores phone records it collects for five years.

The committee vote in favor of the USA Freedom Act was a big step forward for advocates of reforming the NSA, but the measure is just one of two House bills, and companion legislation in the Senate has yet to move forward.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to mark up both the USA Freedom Act and a bill introduced by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) in March. 

Ahead of Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee markup, Rogers seemed optimistic about the odds of merging the two bills into one that could win universal support.

“We’ve had, I think, a bit of a breakthrough this week,” he said. “I really do feel we’re very close to a deal that everybody will feel comfortable with.”

Unlike the Judiciary bill, legislation pending before the Intel panel would not require a specific court order every time the NSA wants to grab and search records about a phone number. That’s been a major sticking point for NSA critics, who see it as a necessary check on the agency’s power.

Rogers, who had previously worried that the court order provision would dangerously delay agents trying to head off a terror attack, suggested he could be open to the Judiciary Committee's plan, as long as there were provisions to allow for quick searches in the case of an emergency.

“All of these things, I think, are doable in the negotiation,” he said.