Leahy praises ‘historic step’ for NSA bill

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said lawmakers in the House took an “historic step” on Wednesday by voting to rein in surveillance at the National Security Agency (NSA).

“The committee’s overwhelming, bipartisan vote makes clear that there is broad support in Congress, after years of debate, to recalibrate the nation’s surveillance authorities and put a real oversight structure in place,” he said in a statement.

Leahy also announced that the Judiciary Committee would take up the Senate version of the NSA reform bill, which he introduced, this summer.

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On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the USA Freedom Act in a unanimous 32-0 vote. The bill ends the NSA’s bulk collection of people’s phone records, enacts new rules for the federal court that authorizes the operations and makes other changes to the country’s embattled spy programs.

Leahy’s support for the action was matched by privacy and civil liberties advocates who have long pushed for Congress to move on the legislation. 

“Today, the House Judiciary Committee took an important step forward on surveillance reform, voting to end dragnet collection of Americans’ personal information,” said a statement from Zeke Johnson, the director of Amnesty International’s security and human rights program.

In order to win broad approval in the committee, House lawmakers had to make some changes on foreign searches and other aspects of the bill. Leahy expressed reservations that some of those changes could weaken the reform effort.

“I remain concerned that the legislation approved today does not include some of the important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court, and greater transparency,” he said.

The legislation now heads to the House Intelligence Committee, which will mark it up along with a separate NSA reform bill that committee leaders have said better protects national security on Thursday.

Kevin Bankston, the policy director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, said that the strong Judiciary vote should convince the Intel Committee to “abandon its much weaker reform bill and instead approve the USA FREEDOM Act when it meets tomorrow.”