Activists blast spy bill as 'ripe for abuse'

Liberal groups, transparency advocates and the whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers are coming out strongly against a Senate bill to reform the National Security Agency (NSA), arguing the reforms it contains are inadequate.

Activists and whistleblowers told members of Congress in a letter on Monday that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBattle over timing complicates Democratic shutdown strategy Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts MORE’s (D-Vt.) USA Freedom Act “contains ambiguities that are ripe for abuse” and “fails to protect against future privacy invasions of innocent people.”

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They said the bill — which would end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and make some changes to the secretive federal court overseeing surveillance activities — does not ban “backdoor” searches of Americans’ communications through a legal power meant to target people overseas. The bill would also reauthorize the Patriot Act.

“Our fundamental civil rights — the human rights we hold dear — are not adequately protected by either the Senate or House versions of the USA Freedom Act,” wrote the groups and individuals, including the Sunlight Foundation, CREDO Action, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Daniel Ellsberg and Thomas Drake.

The new backlash could hinder the bill, which was already on a tight path to the Senate floor.

Though the USA Freedom Act has attracted bipartisan support and backing from tech companies, civil liberties groups and the Obama administration, some lawmakers are critical of it.

Some of the Senate’s biggest defense hawks fear the bill could hamper intelligence officials and open the country up to attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGOP set to release controversial Biden report Democrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate GOP senator blocks Schumer resolution aimed at Biden probe as tensions run high MORE (D-Ore.) and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump MORE (D-Colo.), two major privacy advocates, have pushed for the bill to go further in favor of civil liberties.

With time on the congressional calendar ticking away and midterm elections coming in November, supporters of the bill are under pressure to convince Senate leaders to move forward. The job may only get harder after the elections, if Republicans gain control of the upper chamber and feel they can craft a bill friendlier to their party.

One question mark for the bill is the level of support from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNames to watch as Trump picks Ginsburg replacement on Supreme Court McConnell says Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg will get Senate vote Top Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence MORE (D-Calif.). She has seemed skeptical of Leahy’s bill, but is still in discussions with him about possible changes and seems interested in getting something done this year. 

The House passed a reform bill for the NSA earlier this year, though many of the agency's biggest critics said it was too weak to be effective.