House clears path for NSA reform

The House appears close to approving legislation from the original author of the Patriot Act to end surveillance programs that came to light in leaks from Edward Snowden nearly a year ago.

In a major twist, House lawmakers are rallying round Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr.’s (R-Wis.) USA Freedom Act. The bill went through significant changes to win unanimous support last week in the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which have previously sparred on the issue.

Proponents of reining in the National Security Agency initially feared that opposition from the spy agency’s defenders, who say that reforms could handicap the nation’s ability to fight terrorism, would sink their efforts. But now they say momentum is on their side as the bill heads to the House floor.

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“It is a historic moment for surveillance reform. It is the first time you’ve actually had something that’s a net positive for reform since the Patriot Act,” said Gabe Rottman, a lobbyist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

But he added that the bill was “weakened significantly” by reforms to gain more support.

Under the legislation, the NSA would no longer collect and store metadata about the phone numbers people call, how often and for how long. Those records would stay with private phone companies that already have to hold onto them under federal regulations, and NSA officials would need a court order before searching for data about a specific phone number.

The bill also bans bulk collection of information under other means like national security letters, creates a panel of legal experts to weigh in on matters at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and allows additional judicial oversight, among other measures.

The bill has attracted more than 140 co-sponsors since it was introduced in October, but it sat more or less idle until leaders on the House Intelligence Committee introduced a reform bill of their own in March.

The Intelligence effort “definitely turned up the temperature and created a greater sense of urgency to reach a compromise,” a House staffer said.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) had warned that the USA Freedom Act was a nonstarter and could make the country less safe. Civil liberties advocates retorted that their legislation was too light on protecting people’s right to privacy.

To satisfy the NSA defenders’ concerns, lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee spent nearly the last two months carefully crafting a compromise measure that would win broader support. The new version, introduced last week, altered transparency provisions as well as measures calling for a special advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and limiting “back door” searches of Americans.

A staffer who worked on the USA Freedom Act said that the original plan was to move forward with two parallel bills and hope to win over House leaders once on the floor.

“We thought we would pass our bill, and Intel would pass their own bill, and we hoped that leadership would view ours as the most reasonable alternative,” the staffer said. “Fortunately, we were able to reach a compromise, and the path forward is clear."

Intelligence Committee leaders agreed to take up the Judiciary bill on Tuesday, but that plan was almost derailed when they floated changes they intended to make to the USA Freedom Act. In the end, the Intelligence Committee changed course and the two panels took up the same version of the bill.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the USA Freedom Act on a 32-0 vote on Wednesday.

A day later, the Intelligence panel passed it on a voice vote during a closed-door session. The committee declined to consider the Rogers and Ruppersberger alternative and decided that sending one bill to the floor would be politically and practically easier to manage, according to an aide.

Watchers attributed part of the success of the USA Freedom Act to Judiciary Committee leaders’ insistence on sticking to the compromise they had forged.

Midway through Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee markup, the panel first approved and then, on a second vote, denied an amendment from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) to clarify that surveillance operations should only target foreign intelligence and terrorism.

“I think there was a lot of confusion about what the Gohmert amendment did, and of course one of the concerns is that an amendment that moves the agreement … one direction or the other could upset that ability to get a very strong vote coming out of committee and the ability to get this bill to the floor of the House,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said after the markup.

“We made that case, and I think members responded to that,” he added.

The bill now heads to the House floor, where supporters have said they expect a vote by the end of the month.

In the upper chamber, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has promised that his committee would take up the bill this summer.

Leahy, who introduced the Senate bill, said after the Judiciary Committee’s vote that he was “concerned” that some provisions in the compromise do not adequately protect civil liberties or provide necessary transparency. Other reform-minded senators expressed similar apprehension that the House compromise was too weak in some areas.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has previously pushed for more narrow reforms to the NSA, is still reviewing the House bill and has yet to take a position, according to an aide.

Advocates have said that the House effort should spur action in the Senate, and Sensenbrenner last week seemed optimistic about the chances going forward.

“I’m looking forward to looking over the president’s shoulder when he signs it into law,” he said.

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