NSA reform bill heads to House floor

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The House Intelligence Committee approved legislation to make a number of reforms to the National Security Agency on Thursday, sending the bill to the House floor.

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The Intelligence Committee’s approval of the USA Freedom Act by voice vote came just a day after the same bill sailed through the Judiciary Committee on a 32-0 vote and adds to the momentum for reining in the NSA nearly a year after leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shocked the world with details of the agency’s operations.

“Enhancing privacy and civil liberties while protecting the operational capability of a critical counterterrorism tool, not pride of authorship, has always been our first and last priority,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said in a joint statement after the closed-door vote.

“We are pleased the House Judiciary Committee reached a compromise that garnered strong, bipartisan support. We look forward to working with the Judiciary Committee, House and Senate leadership, and the White House to address outstanding operational concerns and enact the USA Freedom Act into law this year.”

The bill, introduced last year by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), ends the NSA’s bulk collection of records about people’s phone calls. Intelligence and military leaders have said that the program allows agents to gain critical insight into terrorist networks, but opponents had said that it violates civil liberties and the right to privacy.

Under the legislation, the phone records will stay in the hands of private phone companies that already keep them for regulatory and billing purposes. NSA agents will be able to search for information about a specific number only after getting a specific court order.

It “is a very important step on the road to ending bulk collection and reforming the metadata program,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee who has urged strong reforms, in a statement after the vote.

The USA Freedom Act also makes reforms to the federal surveillance court that checks the NSA, puts limits on the FBI's use of national security letters to get information and allows companies to disclose some details about the government requests they get.

In recent weeks, Sensenbrenner, the original author of the Patriot Act, worked with leaders in both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees to craft a compromise version that would win support in both panels. A new version introduced this week dropped a previous requirement that searches be connected to an ongoing investigation, changed the makeup of new surveillance court lawyers focusing on civil liberties and changed language limiting “back door” searches of Americans.

Those edits caused some ire among civil liberties advocates but made the bill palatable to lawmakers worried about damaging the country's national security.

“I was strongly opposed to the original USA Freedom Act because it made us less safe,” Ruppersberger said at Thursday’s markup, according to remarks shared by the committee.

However, he said there has been “a drastic improvement” in recent weeks.

“This is what legislating should be: hard work, compromise, outreach, trust and building relationships.”

He added that “some important clarifying amendments” needed to be made to provide authority to look at information about the ongoing calls of suspected foreign spies.

The Intelligence Committee passed the same version of the USA Freedom Act that lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee approved on Wednesday.

Rogers and Ruppersberger earlier this year introduced their own surveillance reform bill that would have also ended the NSA’s collection of phone records but would have allowed agents to search companies’ records without first obtaining a specific court order. That bill was not considered on Thursday, though it had previously been listed on the committee’s schedule.

After the Judiciary Committee’s vote on Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who introduced the Senate version of the USA Freedom Act, said that his panel would act on the measure this summer.

In March, President Obama laid out a plan to end the NSA’s bulk phone data collection program, and White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden praised lawmakers “for approaching this issue on a bipartisan basis” on Thursday.

“Their bill is a very good step in that important effort, and we look forward to continuing discussions with House leadership about it and to consideration on the House Floor in the near future,” she added.