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 LeahyLawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill Democrats seek to increase supplemental funding bill to 0 billion Five sticking points to a T coronavirus deal 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 WydenHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Hillicon Valley: Coronavirus deal includes funds for mail-in voting | Twitter pulled into fight over virus disinformation | State AGs target price gouging | Apple to donate 10M masks MORE (D-Ore.) and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallDemocratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado 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 FeinsteinLobbying frenzy connected to stimulus sparks backlash House bill would ban stock trading by members of Congress Loeffler under fire for stock trades amid coronavirus outbreak 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.