Advocates fear NSA bill is being gutted

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Privacy advocates are worried that a bill intended to reform the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) is being watered down before it heads to the House floor.

“Last stage negotiations” between members of the House and the Obama administration could significantly weaken provisions in the NSA bill, people familiar with the discussions say.

“Behind the scenes, there’s some nervousness,” one House aide said.

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Earlier this month, the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees came together to approve a compromise version of the USA Freedom Act. That bill, authored by Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), would scale back many of the sweeping surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden.

To win the support of NSA defenders, lawmakers abandoned some reform provisions in Sensenbrenner’s original bill. One of the major changes was dropping the appointment of a constitutional advocate to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the NSA’s spying requests, and substituting it for a panel of experts.

The bill was also stripped of language that would have allowed tech companies to publish more specific information about the number and types of government requests for user data they receive.

During Judiciary consideration, an amendment to allow less specific reporting was added back into the bill, but some worry that provision is in danger now because the administration thinks it’s already reached a deal that allows tech companies to publish more information about the NSA requests.

While pro-reform advocacy groups and members hailed the House bill as a positive first step, many lamented the revisions and said the legislation will be in trouble on the floor if it undergoes further changes.

There is a “growing chorus of concern” that the bill that makes it to the floor for a vote could be a less meaningful version of what passed the Judiciary and Intelligence committees with overwhelming bipartisan support, the aide said.

Reform advocates warn they will withdraw their support for the bill if the final version doesn’t pass muster.

“The support for this bill is not ironclad,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“They cannot simply weaken it and expect the same support.”

“I don’t see the incentive for us to bend,” said an aide to a House member who supports reforming the NSA.

In a letter to House leadership and the chairmen and ranking members of the House Rules, Judiciary and Intelligence committees, privacy advocates and tech companies noted the provisions in the new USA Freedom Act are already weaker than what was originally proposed.

“The somewhat tenuous … support” of privacy advocates and tech companies “could very well crumble if that compromise is watered down even further,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

Once the bill gets through the House, attention will turn to the Senate, where advocates are hopeful that some elements of the reform plan can be strengthened.

“As it leaves the House, we want to continue to improve the bill,” one lobbyist said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) earlier this month said he was concerned that the House bill “does not include some of the important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court and greater transparency.”

Leahy is the coauthor and Senate sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.

He pledged to “continue to push for those reforms when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the USA Freedom Act this summer.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) — a member of the Judiciary Committee and author of a bill that would allow more reporting of NSA requests by tech companies — similarly pledged to fight for transparency measures.

“I want to make sure that Americans have a much better idea of the information collected about them in the government’s surveillance programs,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

“Any reform to FISA or the Patriot Act must include greater government transparency for the American people,” he said, pointing to his Surveillance Transparency Act.

Despite assurances from Leahy and others, some say it’s too early to tell what will happen when the upper chamber takes up the NSA bill.

“It can be improved in the Senate, but it can also be weakened in the Senate,” Geiger said.

What happens in the Senate will depend in large part on what version of the bill passes the House, which is why the chamber’s needs to be as strong as possible, reform advocates say.

“The single biggest determinant of what’s going to happen in the Senate is what passes in the House,” Bankston said.