Hard-Hitting NSA Reform Bill Starts Moving Through Congress

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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The most significant National Security Agency legislative overhaul, the USA Freedom Act, saw fresh movement toward a vote in Congress Monday after more than six months of delay since it was introduced last year.

The House Judiciary Committee announced plans to move the bill to markup on Wednesday, where it will have to clear a committee vote before moving to the full House floor for a vote. According to congressional aides cited in a Guardian report, the bill is expected to move through the committee with bipartisan support.

“This will start to look like a reasonable path forward for surveillance reform,” the aide said.

After initial skepticism, Virginia Republican representative and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte will now support the bill despite push back from House Republican leadership, whom preferred a more docile bill from the House Intelligence Committee allowing the government to subpoena data without prior judicial approval.

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.

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. The bill carries the nearly unanimous consent of the tech community and a comparable ratio of privacy and civil liberties advocates.

Roughly an hour after the House Judiciary Committee’s announcement, the intelligence committee announced it will markup its bill, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act, on Thursday.

“This bill directly addresses the privacy concerns many Americans have expressed over bulk collection. The bill ends bulk collection of telephone metadata and increases transparency while maintaining the tools our government needs to keep Americans and our allies safe,” committee leaders Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland said in a joint statement Monday.

“We believe this bill responds to the concerns many members of Congress have expressed and can be the compromise vehicle to reform FISA while preserving important counterterrorism capabilities,” the committee leaders said.

The intelligence committee announcement effectively sets off a race to Speaker of the House John Boehner, who will decide which bill will be brought to the floor, and it what order.

Though the committee compromised some of the bill’s original language to allow the NSA to collect phone data on Americans based on “reasonable articulable suspicion” and the records of people two degrees separated from a target, it only permits individual collection – not bulk, sweeping dragnet collection and storage.

The bill has 143 House cosponsors and 21 cosponsors for the Senate version. Sensenbrenner, Goodlatte, Virginia Republican Randy Forbes and Democrats John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia will present the legislation to the committee on Wednesday.

“As the Committee of primary jurisdiction, we have conducted robust oversight of the intelligence-gathering programs operated under FISA and have come to the conclusion that these programs are in need of reform to protect our privacy, including prohibiting bulk collection under Section 215,” the six congressmen said in a joint statement.

“Over the past several months, we have worked together across party lines and with the Administration and have reached a bipartisan solution that includes real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency, while preserving our ability to protect America’s national security. We look forward to taking up this legislation on Wednesday and continuing to work with House leaders to reform these programs.”

The White House has yet to take a position on either bill facing markup in the House later this week.

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