Spy office gives boost to NSA reform effort

Spy office gives boost to NSA reform effort
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A congressional effort to reform government spying and renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act is getting an early blessing of approval from the Obama administration.

“On first read, the new version of the USA Freedom Act looks like it accomplishes the president’s goals and will preserve important intelligence capabilities,” Robert Litt, the general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said on Friday.

“The administration has worked very closely with members of Congress, their staff — both parties in both houses — to come up with this bill,” he added.

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The legislation, which sailed through the House Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote on Thursday, would end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records while also limiting other data collection programs, adding new transparency measures and changing the structure of the secretive federal court overseeing intelligence operations. 

“It does all this without a significant and unacceptable impairment of operational capabilities,” Litt said on Friday during a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Advisory Committee and the Congressional Internet Caucus.

The Obama administration has long urged Congress to pass legislation to rein in the NSA by effectively ending its current bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. The program — which was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden nearly two years ago —  collects “metadata” such as the numbers involved in a phone call and when it occurred but not the content of someone’s conversation.

The administration has said taking that step would be a good way to rebuild trust in the nation’s spies without handicapping American officials going after terrorists.

At the same time, the support of the Obama administration might cause some unease among the biggest privacy advocates, who are already anxious that the new legislation is weaker than it may appear at first glance.

On Thursday, Judiciary Committee leaders beat back an effort to expand the scope of the USA Freedom Act, worrying it would scuttle a carefully crafted deal between chamber leaders and the Intelligence Committee. It’s unclear how much pressure the Obama administration put on lawmakers to make them toe that line. 

Last year, the White House put its support behind previous iterations of the USA Freedom Act. The House easily passed its version of the legislation, but the Senate measure came two votes shy of overcoming a filibuster.

New action on the bill has been prompted by the looming June 1 deadline of three provisions of the Patriot Act, including the measure that the NSA has relied upon for its phone records program.

The USA Freedom Act would reauthorize those Patriot Act provisions until December 2019.