NYT cheers ‘breakthrough’ NSA reform bill

The New York Times is putting its weight behind a bill that will be introduced in the Senate this week to rein in the National Security Agency.

The new version of the USA Freedom Act from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is a “significant improvement” over the House bill, the Times editorial board wrote on Monday, which many privacy and technology industry advocates said had been gutted by the time it hit the House floor.

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“Over all, the bill represents a breakthrough in the struggle against the growth of government surveillance power,” it wrote. “The Senate should pass it without further dilution, putting pressure on the House to do the same.”

Leahy’s bill, which he has been negotiating with fellow lawmakers and the Obama administration for months, will end the government’s bulk collection and storage of “metadata” about Americans’ phone calls, just as the House bill did. Critics of the lower chamber’s legislation, however, said that definitions were written too broadly, which could allow agents to collect large swaths of information from private phone companies, such as everyone in a specific ZIP code or every AT&T subscriber.

“The vague language in the House bill could easily have been exploited by the agency’s lawyers to conduct far more snooping on personal records than is really needed during a terrorism investigation,” the Times declared.

Leahy’s bill would change that, people who had seen draft versions told The Hill, and limit the government to very narrow, defined searches. It would also add new transparency measures so people know more about what the government is doing and add a strong team of civil liberties advocates to the secretive federal surveillance court, which current only hears arguments from the government.

Both tech companies and civil liberties groups have embraced the new bill and are pushing for it to stay strong once it is unveiled this week. 

The bill does not tackle the issue of “backdoor” searches, however, which allow the government to collect information about Americans’ communications through a portion of the law that only authorizes searches on foreigners.

Leahy should “add that provision to his bill,” the Times urged.