NSA reform legislation 'watered down'?

Privacy advocates who have pushed for legislation to reform U.S. government surveillance are backing away from a House bill that they say has been "watered down" as it heads to the floor.

Though the original legislation intended to end sweeping surveillance programs, the bill the House will vote on as early as this week allows for “mass surveillance on a slightly smaller scale,” according to Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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The bill — the USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) — was originally written to prohibit the U.S. government's sweeping surveillance program.

But after moving through the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, where it saw some changes but retained the support of privacy advocates, last minute negotiations between House leadership and the Obama administration have left the bill with weakened language when it comes to banning mass surveillance, advocates say.

On Tuesday, Sensenbrenner filed a manager’s amendment at the House Rules Committee to be considered on the floor in place of the bill that passed the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

Sensenbrenner’s amendment still prohibits bulk collection but would allow government officials to search for records using “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device, used by the Government to limit the scope of the information or tangible things sought.”

While the standard in Sensenbrenner's amendment is more specific than the one under current law, it leaves too much room for interpretation, as opposed to earlier versions of the bill, Geiger said.

It may keep the intelligence community from sweeping surveillance on a national level, but “it is ambiguous enough to allow for large scale collection,” he said.

“Ambiguity is what got us into this mess in the first place,” he said, referring to a controversial National Security Agency program that collected information about Americans’ phone calls.

The U.S. government determined that data about all Americans’ phone calls was “relevant” to intelligence investigations under current surveillance laws and, therefore, could be collected.

"We cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the USA Freedom Act, where key reforms — especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency — have been substantially watered down," Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said.

Bankston said his group is "gravely disappointed that, rather than respecting the wishes of the unanimous Judiciary and Intelligence committees, the House leadership and the Obama Administration have chosen to disrupt the hard-fought compromise that so many of us were willing to support just two weeks ago."

Geiger also expressed frustration at the way last minute negotiations have led to a weaker bill.

He pointed to bipartisan support for the original USA Freedom Act and the international backlash that came after last year’s revelations about U.S. surveillance.

“Despite all of that, the bill has been watered down to provide only mild reform,” he said.

While Geiger’s group is unlikely to oppose the bill, it now “falls far short” of the needed reform, he said.

Advocacy group Access also withdrew its support for the bill.

In a statement, Access Senior Policy Counsel Amie Stepanovich said her group was "forced" to withdraw its support after the USA Freedom Act was "secretly watered down behind closed doors."

"It’s greatly disappointing to witness House leaders succumb to the pressure applied by the Obama administration and others, turning its back on the compromise version of USA Freedom that so many supported just two weeks ago," she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill "leaves much to be desired, and it is a limited first step in the direction of reforming mass surveillance practices," but the group did not pull its support.

"The Senate will have to make extensive improvements to satisfy the concerns of the American people over mass surveillance, and we will fight to make that happen," Laura Murphy, director of the group's Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement.

— This post was updated at 9:01 p.m. to include additional comments.