NSA reform to be ‘fight of the summer’

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Civil libertarians who say the House didn’t go far enough to reform the National Security Agency are mounting a renewed effort in the Senate to shift momentum in their direction.

After compromises in the House bill, the NSA’s critics are buckling down for a months-long fight in the Senate that they hope will lead to an end to government snooping on Americans.

“This is going to be the fight of the summer,” vowed Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

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If advocates are able to change the House bill’s language to prohibit NSA agents from collecting large quantities of data, “then that’s a win,” he added.

“The bill still is not ideal even with those changes, but that would be an improvement,” Rottman said.

The USA Freedom Act was introduced in both the House and Senate last autumn, after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s operations captured headlines around the globe.

Privacy advocates like the ACLU rallied around the bill as the way to rein in the spy agency and more than 150 lawmakers signed on as cosponsors in the House.

In recent weeks, though, advocates worried that it was being progressively watered down.

First, leaders on the House Judiciary Committee made changes in order to gain support from a broader cross-section of the chamber. Then, after it sailed through both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, additional changes were made behind closed doors that caused many privacy groups and tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple to drop their support.

When it passed the House 303-121 last week, fully half of the bill’s original cosponsors voted against it.

“We were of course very disappointed at the weakening of the bill,” said Robyn Greene, policy counsel at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “Right now we really are turning our attention to the Senate to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Instead of entirely blocking the government’s ability to collect bulk amounts of data, critics said that the new bill could theoretically allow federal agents to gather information about an entire area code or region of the country.

One factor working in the reformers’ favor is the strong support of Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Unlike House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who only came to support the bill after negotiations to produce a manager’s amendment, Leahy was the lead Senate sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.

The fact that Leahy controls the committee gavel means he should be able to guide the bill through when it comes up for discussion next month, advocates said.   

“The fact that he is the chairman and it’s his bill and this is an issue that he has been passionate about for many years” is comforting, Greene said.

“I think this is something he really wants to see get done. He wants to see it get done right. And he wants to see that Americans are confident that their privacy is being adequately protected,” she added.

Moments after the House passed its bill, Leahy issued a statement praising the action but said he was “disappointed” that some “meaningful reforms” were not included.

Other surveillance critics such as Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) expressed similar dissatisfaction with the House effort.

Their sentiments should be buoyed by the swift outrage from civil liberties advocates on both sides of the aisle, reformers hoped.

One reason the House bill moved so far away from its early principles, lawmakers and surveillance critics have claimed, was pressure from House leadership and the Obama administration in the days ahead of the vote.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is pledging to let Leahy and Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) take the lead on how to move forward.

“I want Chairman Feinstein and Chairman Leahy to take a very close look at that and report to the Senate as to what they think should be done,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“I believe we must do something and I have no problem with the House having acted, but I couldn’t pass a test on what’s in their bill. But I guarantee I’ll be able to after Feinstein and Leahy take a look at this,” said Reid.

Feinstein, who is also the No. 2 Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, could pose the biggest obstacle for Leahy’s efforts.

She previously pushed for a much narrower reform bill, but said late  Thursday that she was “open to considering” the House-passed legislation.

House lawmakers, however, might not be too pleased if the two chambers end up with a significantly different piece of legislation.

After passing its bill on Thursday, Goodlatte warned the Senate not to deviate too far from the compromise that he and his colleagues had put together.

“This has been very carefully negotiated here within the House but also with the administration,” he said. “And it’s going to be very important that if the Senate does something different that it is... better and not just different.

“Because different can be worse rather than better,” Goodlatte said.