NSA critics hail votes as game-changers

 

Lawmakers and privacy advocates who are fighting to restrain the National Security Agency (NSA) say the tide is turning in their favor.

Votes in the House last week limiting government surveillance “will change the trajectory” of the debate as the Senate takes up surveillance reform legislation, according to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a vocal NSA critic.

On Thursday, the House passed two amendments to the 2015 Defense appropriations bill that would keep the NSA from using its funding from Congress to spy.

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The first amendment, from Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Lofgren and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), would require the NSA to obtain a warrant to search for information about people in the U.S. when searching collections of communications involving foreigners.

The provision would also keep the NSA from requiring tech companies to build “backdoor” security vulnerabilities into their products and services.

That amendment passed 293-123.

A second amendment, offered by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), would keep the NSA form working with the Commerce Department’s digital security agency to create faulty cryptography standards. 

That amendment passed by voice vote.

Supporters of the NSA amendments say they are aimed at restoring some of the surveillance reforms that were stripped out of the USA Freedom Act, which passed the House last month.

The original bill — introduced by Sensenbrenner, original author of the Patriot Act, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — had multiple provisions aimed at reining in the NSA and ending sweeping “bulk” surveillance activities, such as the program that collected information about U.S. phone calls.

But eleventh-hour negotiations between House leadership and the Obama administration removed some of the changes to the NSA, prompting some lawmakers and privacy advocates to withdraw their support for the bill.

Lofgren said this week’s vote better reflects lawmakers’ attitudes about surveillance, as House members have had time to learn about the bill they passed in May.

“A lot of people didn’t even know what was going on,” she said of the final negotiations that led to the final House-passed USA Freedom Act.

“A week or two later, the details of the bill came out,” she said, and realizing that a member has supported weakened surveillance reform “doesn’t always make for a happy town hall meeting.”

Lofgren said she wished this week’s amendments went further in restoring surveillance reforms, but said the appropriations process limited her options.

“It just wasn’t possible to craft a remedy for every defect,” she said.

NSA critics on Capitol Hill and within privacy groups praised the amendment votes, saying they pointed to broader pressure for aggressive surveillance reform.

“The weakening of the USA Freedom Act in the House has backfired,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

In addition to Thursday’s House vote, a coalition of 38 privacy and civil liberties groups wrote to Senate leadership encouraging stronger reforms and threatening to oppose any bill that doesn’t end bulk collection.

Unless the Senate bill “contains substantial improvements over the House-passed version, we will be forced to oppose the bill that so many of us previously worked to advance,” the groups said in their letter.

Surveillance critics are hopeful the upper chamber will take the message of the amendment votes to heart.

As a co-author of the original USA Freedom Act, Leahy has repeatedly said that the Senate version of the bill must include some of the reforms that got stripped as it headed to the House floor.

“I am committed to moving forward with surveillance reform legislation in the Senate, but we must fix some of the problems that have been identified with the House bill,” he said at a committee meeting earlier this month.

“Most importantly, we must be sure that any legislation we pass effectively bans bulk collection.”

Leahy has said he plans to take up surveillance reform in his committee “this summer.”

In the meantime, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has defended the NSA over the last year, has taken up the House-passed USA Freedom Act, while Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has indicated that she is open to tweaking the bill.

Lofgren said she hopes the Senate reform effort includes this week’s amendment “and more.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vocal critic of NSA surveillance, credited the House with taking “a big step forward for Americans’ privacy rights by voting to prohibit intelligence agencies from deliberately reading Americans’ emails and private communications without a warrant.”

He pledged to urge “my colleagues in the Senate to follow the House’s lead.” 

“It is time to slam this back door shut,” he said.

As “one of the last stops for making substantive improvements to USA Freedom,” the Senate should take into account the overwhelming House vote, Geiger said.

“There is a clear recognition by the House that Americans are very concerned about their privacy from government surveillance and that the USA Freedom Act does not address those concerns,” he said, adding that further reforms could come through a different legislative push.

“There is clearly a political will to take up these reforms.”