The White House officially put its weight behind the most far-reaching National Security Agency surveillance overhaul legislation in Congress on Wednesday, saying in no uncertain terms it “strongly supports” the bill’s changes to “provide the public greater confidence in our programs and the checks and balances in the system.”
A statement released Wednesday afternoon from the president’s Office of Management and Budget made the announcement, which precedes a Thursday vote on the House floor to move the USA FREEDOM Act on to the Senate.
“The bill ensures our intelligence and law enforcement professionals have the authorities they need to protect the nation, while further ensuring that individuals’ privacy is appropriately protected when these authorities are employed,” the White House said.
After more than six months of delay the bill finally moved to markup in the House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, where it passed with bipartisan support.
Co-written and sponsored by PATRIOT Act author and Republican Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the bill is by far the most in-depth overhaul of NSA legality and procedure since the leaks of classified Internet and telephone bulk surveillance programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden last year.
The bill specifically rewrites PATRIOT Act Section 215 and FISA Section 702, which are the primary sources of legal justification for the mass collection and surveillance of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ phone records, Internet communications, metadata and more.
If passed by Congress and signed by the president, the bulk collection and storage of Americans’ phone records and data would be taken out of NSA’s hands. Private companies would be tasked with holding the data themselves, forcing the signals intelligence agency to obtain court orders to access only specific targets’ data.
It would also prevent the FBI’s use of national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance pen registers to make bulk data requests, and change the makeup of the FISA Court, which approves agency subpoenas for data.
Significant support for the USA Freedom Act already extends into the Senate thanks to Democratic co-author, judiciary chair, president pro tempore and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Since its inception the bill has carried the nearly unanimous consent of the tech community and a comparable ratio of privacy and civil liberties advocates.
However, some of those advocates have expressed concern in the weeks since the bill went to markup, fearing that some of its furthest-reaching reforms were being resigned to the cutting room floor in order to secure the support of House leadership, whom were in favor of a more-docile bill from the House Intelligence Committee.
Some of the bill’s compromised language allows the NSA to collect phone data on Americans based on “reasonable articulable suspicion” and the records of people two degrees separated from a target. Even still, it only permits individual collection – not bulk, sweeping dragnet collection and storage like that revealed by Snowden.
“The administration supports swift House passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, and urges the Senate to follow suit,” the Wednesday White House statement said.