National Security

GOP leaders at odds on NSA reform

Greg Nash

The GOP-led House on Wednesday passed the most sweeping reforms to the nation’s intelligence laws in years, setting up a clash with Republicans in the Senate.

In a 338-88 vote, the House overwhelmingly approved the USA Freedom Act, which would prevent the NSA from collecting bulk metadata about the phone numbers people dial and when their calls are placed.

{mosads}Forty-seven Republicans and 41 Democrats opposed the bill. 

The legislation faces an uncertain path forward.

The politics surrounding the NSA’s surveillance programs are scrambled, and the Senate has just two weeks before the existing law authorizing the NSA’s metadata collection expires.

Supporters of the program warn that not extending it will compromise national security.

While the White House backs the USA Freedom Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has led opposition to it in the upper chamber and supports extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the collection of metadata, without reforms.

McConnell’s allies include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has emerged as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) backs the USA Freedom Act, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposes it; both are also presidential hopefuls. Paul supports allowing the existing law to expire and believes it would be better to not replace it.

Supporters of the House bill argue it would impose serious conditions on the NSA’s surveillance programs that would protect privacy.

“I’m not ignorant to the threats we face, but a clean reauthorization would be irresponsible,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who authored the legislation and also wrote the original Patriot Act. “Congress never intended Section 215 to allow bulk collection. That program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law.”

The bill would require the NSA to obtain a court order to look at data, which would be held by phone companies. It would also be required to ask for a “specific selection term,” so that records could not be collected in bulk.

It would place limits on other types of data collection as well, add new transparency measures to make more information public and create a special team of experts to weigh in on some unique cases before the secretive federal court that oversees intelligence programs.

That’s less than some staunch civil libertarians had hoped for, however.

Lawmakers such as Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) were blocked from proposing amendments that would have added extra legal protections for people’s emails and expanded the bill to also cover NSA programs sweeping up foreigners’ Internet data, among other areas.

“This bill did not create those problems. However, this bill doesn’t correct those problems,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who supports stronger reforms.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have also declined to support the legislation, saying that while it would offer “incremental improvements,” it “does not go nearly far enough.”

Still, many lawmakers believe the legislation is more palatable than the status quo.

“This bill is far better than the current state of affairs,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.).

The bill is similar to legislation the House approved last year, in a 303-121 vote. That measure hit a wall in the Senate, however, falling two votes shy of overcoming a filibuster led by Republican leadership.

McConnell has argued the bill would return the nation’s security standards to the days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Section 215 helped us find the needle in a haystack, but under the USA Freedom Act, there may not be a haystack to look through at all,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week.

“We’re not taking up the House bill,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who sided with McConnell, echoed on Wednesday.

Passing the USA Freedom Act and allowing the Patriot Act provisions to expire would be “one and the same,” he added, “because when you do away with bulk storage you basically have an unworkable system in real time, and part of this program’s design is it works in real time ahead of the threat.” 

It’s far from clear that a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act would be approved either, however.

Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have threatened to filibuster McConnell’s plans for a “clean” reauthorization of the current law.

The Senate’s decision became more complicated in recent days, after a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s phone records program exceeded the bounds of the law but declined to shut it down immediately. The decision threw the issue back in Congress’s lap and left real questions about whether the clean reauthorization sought by McConnell and other Senate hawks would be enough to authorize what they want.

On Tuesday, dozens of Senate lawmakers huddled for a classified briefing with a handful of top intelligence officials. Lawmakers were tight-lipped upon exiting the meeting in a secure room in the Capitol basement.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to address the differences between House and Senate leaders.

“I’m not going to speculate what the Senate will or will not do,” he told reporters.

“All I know is that these programs expire at the end of this month. They are critically important to keep Americans safe.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Updated at 8:38 p.m.

Tags John Boehner Mitch McConnell National Security Agency nsa

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