A House committee led by some of the most vocal defenders of the National Security Agency has now approved a bill that would end the government's mass collection of Americans' phone records.
The House Intelligence Committee passed Thursday on a voice vote the USA Freedom Act, which would curtail the government's ability to collect bulk phone metadata — the numbers and timestamps of a call but not its actual contents. The panel passed "the exact same" version of the bill that unanimously cleared the House Judiciary Committee just a day earlier, a committee aide said.
Under the bill, the storage of phone metadata will be moved from the government and into the hands of phone companies. The measure allows data collection only for counterterrorism purposes, and it reduced from three to two the number of "hops," or degrees of separation, from suspected target the NSA can jump when analyzing communications.
The decision by the Intelligence panel to pass the bill marks a sharp departure for Republican Chairman Mike Rogers and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the panel's top Democrat, who were among the most steadfast defenders of the NSA in the months following Edward Snowden's leaks last June.
Rogers and Ruppersberger are crediting the about-face to changes made to the Freedom Act by the Judiciary panel.
But the duo also made one key concession: Except in emergency cases, the Freedom Act does not allow the NSA to search phone records without first getting approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
A separate proposal from Rogers and Ruppersberger that would have allowed the NSA to get after-the-fact judicial approval was also scheduled for consideration Thursday but was ultimately not taken up.
"I was strongly opposed to the original USA Freedom Act because it made us less safe," Ruppersberger said in a statement. "But "¦ I am confident now that the bill is on the right path."
The amended Freedom Act has drawn the ire of some privacy hawks, who say it is a watered-down version of the original measure introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, last fall that had accrued 149 cosponsors. But anti-spying advocates generally agree that the bill, even in its current form, is the best bet from Congress to get reform done this year.
"This vote is a clear sign that the balance is shifting away from excessive NSA spying and back toward liberty," said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington. "While the legislation is not perfect, it looks like Congress will have the chance to pass meaningful surveillance reforms for the first time since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, and that is very significant."
In January, President Obama announced his administration would reform how the NSA collects and stores telephone data, but he said he had to wait for Congress to send him legislation that resembled his requests. The original Freedom Act was seen as too sweeping compared with what Obama wanted, but the amended version aligns more closely with what the administration is seeking.
Lawmakers in both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees have said they expect the compromise Freedom Act to earn a vote on the House floor by Memorial Day.
Aides to House leadership did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The White House also said it expected a floor vote in the "near future."
"We applaud the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees for approaching this issue on a bipartisan basis," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. "Their bill is a very good step in that important effort, and we look forward to continuing discussions with House leadership about it and to consideration on the House floor in the near future."
A companion version of the original Freedom Act exists in the Senate. But its chief sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, said this week he has reservations about the amended version because it does not include "important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency."
Leahy said his committee will take up the Freedom Act this summer.