Senate Intel moves first on NSA reform

 

The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on legislation passed by the House to rein in the National Security Agency's surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden.

The House-passed bill has been criticized by privacy groups and tech companies, who argue it was excessively watered down before reaching the House floor. Though the House approved it in a 303-121 vote last month, many of the bill’s original supporters ended up voting against it.

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Lawmakers on the Intelligence panel will hear testimony from the Justice Department, NSA, FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as privacy advocates, and tech and communication company executives.

A jurisdictional fight in the Senate is possible, as both the Intelligence and Judiciary panels have authority over the legislation. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who helped put together the first version of the NSA reform bill, known as the USA Freedom Act. 

The Judiciary Committee plans to look at possible changes to the NSA later this month. Critics of the spy agency have urged Leahy to bring up the original version of the USA Freedom Act, before it was watered down.

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and vice chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) will have their panel look at the House-approved bill, signaling their support for that legislation as a starting point.

Still, even the House-passed bill might be a tough pill to swallow for some senators.

Chambliss on Tuesday was skeptical of the bill, which he said “went a little bit too far” toward reining in the NSA.

The USA Freedom Act effectively ends the NSA’s bulk collection of records about people’s phone calls and requires government agents to obtain information from phone companies with a specific court order.

However, critics fear the new bill allows agents to search for broad categories of records, such as everyone in a specific zip code or all Verizon subscribers. It also walks back some transparency measures from the original version and does not do enough to stop “backdoor” searches on Americans.