Ahead of a major vote on a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers in Congress have quietly slipped in a provision overwriting legislation passed earlier this year that prevents the National Security Agency from conducting “backdoor” searches of Americans’ electronic communications.
Congress on Tuesday night unveiled a combined continuing resolution/omnibus spending package, which lawmakers must come to an agreement on by the end of Thursday to avoid a government shutdown. Included in that “CRomnibus” spending bill is language overwriting an amendment overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives that slashes funding for NSA and limits its ability to search Americans’ online communications while surveilling foreigners. (RELATED: House Passes Bill To Cut NSA Funding, Close ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance)
Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky co-sponsored the amendment, which passed as part of the 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill by a vote of 293-123 in June. The amendment places limits on the signals intelligence agency’s access to email, online browsing and chat histories, and prevents it from using its budget to compel companies and organizations to build backdoors into encryption products and standards.
The Senate never passed the authorization bill, and as such, it was rolled into the last-minute congressional-leader drafted “CRomnibus,” which left numerous legislative provisions on the cutting-room floor in order to obtain enough bipartisan support for passage.
“I’m watching the will of the people be subverted,” Massie said in a Huffington Post report. “Our representative democracy has been short-circuited with this omnibus.”
Lawmakers swapped out the amendment’s original language with a vague provision forbidding NSA from specifically targeting Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Section 215 of the Patriot Act, but still leaves open a door allowing the agency to collect Americans’ communications if they’re sent overseas or surveilled incidentally as part of a targeted search for a terrorist connection. Basically, it maintains the status-quo.
“It is a complete placebo. It is restatement of existing law,” Massie said. “I’m almost embarrassed that they put it in the bill, because it does absolutely nothing.”
Given the House’s passage of watered-down NSA reform that enhanced the agency’s ability to conduct certain domestic surveillance and the Senate’s failure to pass overarching agency reform last month dismantling its most invasive program — the collection of virtually all Americans’ telephone records — the removal of the Massie-Lofgren amendment marks the final defeat of any significant bulk surveillance reform this Congress. (RELATED: Senate Sinks NSA Reform)
Despite the setback, Massie, Lofgren and USA FREEDOM Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin aren’t giving up. The three included the core components of the Massie-Lofgren amendment in a bill introduced Wednesday.
“Thus far, Congress has failed to rein in the Administration’s surveillance authorities and protect Americans’ civil liberties,” the three said in a statement Wednesday. “Nevertheless, the Massie-Sensenbrenner-Lofgren amendment established an important record in the full House of Representatives — an overwhelming majority will no longer tolerate the status quo.”
Though there’s no chance of the bill passing before the end of the 2014 legislative session, the lawmakers have hopes for next year.
“Unwarranted and backdoor surveillance is untenable, and as Congress turns to address a multitude of expiring surveillance programs in the 114th Congress, the House will not allow unwarranted surveillance without meaningful reform.”