By Julian Hattem - 05/22/14 01:45 PM EDT
Lawmakers worried about protecting civil liberties said they had scored a win on Thursday with the passage of the USA Freedom Act.
The bill had to overcome opposition from members on both sides of the aisle who worried it was too weak to curb the National Security Agency (NSA), but its passage nonetheless amounted to a step forward, they said.
“As result of the Freedom Act passing the House, the NSA might still be watching us, but now we can watch them,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the bill’s author.
The 303-121 passage of the bill came a year after revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of the agency’s operations and led to outrage around the globe and at home.
The bill ends the NSA’s collection of Americans’ phone records and adds new transparency provisions that Sensenbrenner, who also wrote the Patriot Act, said would prevent abuses from ever happening again.
Under the bill, the NSA would have to tell Congress about any new policy changes within a day, and then would have to inform the public within 45 days.
“That way, if the NSA goes too far, Congress will be able to stop it and the American public will be able to know what is happening,” he said.
But in the days before the measure reached the floor, lawmakers changed the criteria that spy agencies can use to search for records held at private companies, after input from intelligence agency officials and others. That led many privacy activists and tech companies to drop their support, and caused some lawmakers who had backed the bill in its previous forms to vote against it.
“To call this a disappointment is an understatement,” said Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program.
The measure “is frustratingly ambiguous,” she said in the statement, which could lead to NSA over-reach.
Civil liberties advocates like Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) were among the scores that opposed it.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the central architects of the compromise bill, criticized the lawmakers for making the perfect the enemy of the good.
“I would wish the bill went farther,” he said. “But it is never a good criticism of the bill to say ‘it doesn’t go far enough, therefore we should vote against it.’ ”
Despite their opposition, reformers said they were pleased with the votes they got.
"I will say that this is a major step forward in protecting Americans’ civil liberties and in ending bulk data collection by the government," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
“303-121 ain’t bad,” added Sensenbrenner.