Holder, spy chief support Senate NSA reform bill

Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are lending their support to the Senate’s effort to rein in the National Security Agency, a boost for advocates of reform.

The two sent a letter this week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in support of his bill to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

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“Overall, the bill’s significant reforms should provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system,” Holder and Clapper wrote in the joint letter, which Leahy released on Wednesday.

The bill, they added, “preserves essential Intelligence Community capabilities” and is “a reasonable compromise that enhances privacy and civil liberties and increases transparency.”

The explicit support of two government officials charged with overseeing the intelligence agencies is a big victory for Leahy, who is in a race against the clock to get his bill, called the USA Freedom Act, passed this year.

Civil liberties advocates have put pressure on the Senate to rein in the NSA, after the House passed a measure that many privacy advocates said was gutted before it hit the floor.

Since the House vote in May, Leahy has worked hard to craft a bill that has won the support of privacy advocates, tech companies and lawmakers from Tea Party icon Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to liberal stalwart Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). After lengthy negotiations, Leahy released an updated version of the bill in July, just before Congress slipped out of town for the August recess.

Despite the broad support the bill has received so far, it nonetheless has engendered some criticism from both the Senate’s fiercest privacy advocates as well as some of the chamber's strongest intelligence hawks.

The explicit support from the Obama administration could point to a smoother path forward, however, more than a year after Edward Snowden first leaked details about the NSA's operations.

“This support from our leaders on national security strongly confirms that we can advance privacy protections without sacrificing our safety,” said Nuala O’Connor, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has been pushing to reform the NSA. “After a year of debate, the consensus is clear — bulk collection is invasive and unnecessary, and its prohibition will not hamper essential intelligence needs.”

Leahy’s bill would end the government’s collection of phone metadata — information about which numbers people dial as well as the length and frequency of their calls, but not the conversations themselves — and establish new privacy protections on the federal court overseeing spy matters.