With clock ticking, lawmakers unveil Patriot Act bill

NSA, Wikipedia, Spying

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday introduced major reforms to the National Security Agency along with extensions to three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.

The negotiated legislation from House Judiciary Committee leaders — including Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — would enact the largest changes to America’s intelligence powers in more than a decade.

“As several intelligence-gathering programs are set to expire in a month, it is imperative that we reform these programs to protect Americans’ privacy while at the same time protecting our national security,” Goodlatte said in a joint statement on Tuesday along with the other House authors, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act.

{mosads}As the June 1 deadline for Congress to act on the Patriot Act nears, the effort sets up a battle with lawmakers on both sides of the spying debate.

In June, three provisions of the Patriot Act are set to lapse, including the controversial Section 215. The NSA has relied on that provision to justify its bulk, warrantless collection of U.S. phone records, which include “metadata” about which numbers people call and when, but not the actual content of their conversations.

To prevent those provisions from lapsing, which intelligence officials say would handicap the government’s ability to track terrorists, some lawmakers have sought a way to extend them while also reforming the NSA program.

The new bill, called the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the NSA’s phone records collection.

Instead, it would require agency officials to obtain the records from private phone companies after securing a court order. It would also add a new panel of experts to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, allow U.S. tech companies to disclose more about the information they are forced to hand over to the government and impose limits on the FBI’s use of “national security letters,” which is one way the government obtains companies’ records.

“It enhances civil liberties protections, increases transparency for both American businesses and the government, ends the bulk collection of data, and provides national security officials targeted tools to keep America safe from foreign enemies,” the four House lawmakers said.

In a fact sheet circulated among lawmakers, backers touted the bill as a stronger version of legislation that easily passed the House last year.

While last year’s bill could have allowed for the NSA to request records in categories as large as an entire area code, the new bill narrows that “specific selection term” that agents can use for searches. It also gives companies more ways to report about government orders they receive and forces the government to disclose more information. 

Last year, a stronger NSA reform bill backed by Leahy and others came just two votes shy of overcoming a procedural hurdle in the Senate, in a major setback for critics of the spy agency.

The new legislation would renew three expiring portions of the Patriot Act until December 2019.

It’s “the product of intense and careful negotiations,” Leahy said in a statement. “The USA Freedom Act is a path forward that has the support of the administration, privacy groups, the technology industry — and most importantly, the American people.”

Lawmakers were originally scheduled to both introduce the legislation and move it through the House Judiciary Committee last week. However, concerns from senior Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee forced a delay.

Now that it has apparently received the Intelligence panel’s blessing, however, the legislation could move quickly to the House floor.

The House Judiciary Committee plans to consider it Thursday morning, the panel announced on Tuesday.

Still, it could meet opposition both from hawks concerned about weakening American security and from civil libertarians who oppose reauthorizing the Patriot Act without more sweeping changes.

The American Civil Liberties Union quickly came out against the bill, saying it does not go far enough. 

“The disclosures of the last two years make clear that we need wholesale reform. Congress should let Section 215 sunset as it’s scheduled to, and then it should turn to reforming the other surveillance authorities that have been used to justify bulk collection,” said Jameel Jaffer, the group’s deputy legal director. 

Other civil liberties groups are split over their support.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled legislation to reauthorize the law without making any changes.

While critics of the NSA’s powers criticized McConnell’s move, it attracted a fair amount of support among hawkish members of the Republican Party.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee who co-sponsored McConnell’s bill — said that the effort was largely meant as an opening position ahead of the upcoming legislative fight.

At the other end of the spectrum, he said, was the USA Freedom Act.

— Updated at 3:56 p.m.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Jim Sensenbrenner Mike Lee Mitch McConnell National Security Agency Patrick Leahy Richard Burr USA Freedom Act USA PATRIOT Act

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