Senator 'within inches' of NSA reform deal

Greg Nash

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is close to an agreement with Obama administration on how to rein in government surveillance.

Leahy said on Tuesday that he is “impressed” with the administration’s efforts to work towards a compromise. 

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“A whole lot of people are coming together, from the intelligence agencies, law enforcement, the administration,” he said.

According to an aide to Leahy, the senator and the administration are “within inches” of an agreement on legislation. If a deal is reached, the bill could head straight to the Senate floor, the aide said.

Leahy’s negotiations with the administration on surveillance reform come after the House passed its reform bill — the USA Freedom Act — earlier this year.

That bill is sponsored in the Senate by Leahy and was sponsored in the House by Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

A National Security Council spokesperson praised the “significant progress” on the USA Freedom Act.

Since the House’s passage of a compromise version of the bill in May, the Obama administration has been “actively engaged” with lawmakers, privacy advocates and companies “to secure Senate passage and the enactment of this critical legislation,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

“These efforts have yielded significant progress on issues vital to those stakeholders,” the spokesperson added.

“While there are a number of additional steps that must take place before this critical bill becomes law, we are encouraged by the recent progress in the Senate, and we are dedicated to achieving this Presidential priority of meaningful reform that both increases transparency and enhances privacy protections while maintaining national security.”

When the USA Freedom Act was initially introduced, tech companies and privacy advocates rallied around it, calling it a needed step in the right directions after leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden raised concerns about government surveillance.

But many — including some of the bill’s original cosponsors — pulled their support for the bill as it made its way to the House floor, citing concerns that it had been “watered down” through eleventh-hour negotiations between the administration and House leadership.

Since the House passed its USA Freedom bill, Leahy has pledged to increase transparency measures and privacy protections and said he hopes to move a bill this summer.

The Leahy aide echoed his commitments, saying that the senator hopes to move the bill before the August recess and has been encouraged by conversations with the administration after seeing the negative response to the House-passed USA Freedom.

“I’m far more encouraged that we can finally come up with some legislation that will do two things,” Leahy said Tuesday.

The bill will create “clear cut guidelines of what [intelligence agencies] can and cannot do” and “let the American people know that their privacy is going to be protected,” he said.

— This story was updated at 7 p.m.