Key Republican Is Not on Board With NSA Reform

Chuck Grassley is not ready to give the USA Freedom Act his blessing.

Grassley: Aims to salvage subsidies.
National Journal
April 21, 2015, 10:27 a.m.

Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley is not yet ready to sup­port le­gis­la­tion that would cur­tail the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance au­thor­it­ies, mean­ing a ma­jor road­b­lock to post-Snowden spy­ing re­forms has yet to budge.

Des­pite weeks of ne­go­ti­ations in­volving his staff, the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an said Tues­day he still has con­cerns about the USA Free­dom Act, a bi­par­tis­an pack­age that would ef­fect­ively end the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords.

“Not un­til I have dis­cus­sions with people on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee,” Grass­ley said Tues­day when asked wheth­er he might sup­port the bill. When pressed on what re­ser­va­tions he still had, Grass­ley offered, “Just find­ing a bal­ance between na­tion­al se­cur­ity and pri­vacy.”


Grass­ley’s reti­cence is sig­ni­fic­ant. Without his back­ing, the USA Free­dom Act will face an up­hill battle in the Sen­ate, where it fell two votes short of ad­van­cing last year amid a fili­buster by the GOP. The lack of sup­port is com­poun­ded by the tight timeline law­makers are work­ing with: On June 1, core pro­vi­sions of the Pat­ri­ot Act are due to sun­set, in­clud­ing a sec­tion the NSA uses to jus­ti­fy its do­mest­ic phone drag­net. The Free­dom Act would reau­thor­ize those pro­vi­sions, al­beit amended with new lim­it­a­tions and pri­vacy pro­tec­tions in place, and many of the bill’s boost­ers con­cede its pas­sage is highly un­likely after that dead­line.

Grass­ley’s sup­port is con­sidered so vi­tal that law­makers work­ing on the bill called an aud­ible last week when it ap­peared he was not ready to sign on. The ori­gin­al game plan called for bicam­er­al in­tro­duc­tion of the meas­ure last Tues­day, but that was dropped due in large part to Grass­ley’s staff still hold­ing re­ser­va­tions.

Now, an in­flu­en­tial bi­par­tis­an co­hort of House law­makers is ex­pec­ted to re­in­tro­duce the Free­dom Act on Wed­nes­day, with plans to pass it through the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee as soon as Thursday. A vote on the House floor could come as soon as next week.

But all the light­ning-fast move­ment will be for naught if the Sen­ate again stands in the way of re­form. The House strategy, however, is in­ten­ded to net a lop­sided vic­tory in or­der to ap­ply more pres­sure on Grass­ley and his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues, who have ex­pressed con­cerns that lim­it­ing sur­veil­lance could bol­ster ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions like IS­IS.

Grass­ley’s de­fer­ence to the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee does not slam the door shut on the pos­sib­il­ity that he may come around on the Free­dom Act, but it is un­likely to give NSA crit­ics much re­as­sur­ance. Sen. Richard Burr, the pan­el’s chair­man, has been a force­ful de­fend­er of the in­tel­li­gence agency’s spy­ing op­er­a­tions.

A pri­vacy ad­voc­ate in­volved in ne­go­ti­ations over the bill told Na­tion­al Journ­al last week it was “not im­possible” that Grass­ley may sign on as a co­spon­sor of the Free­dom Act—though the ad­voc­ate cau­tioned that this scen­ario seemed in­creas­ingly un­likely.

But re­formers are not giv­ing up on Grass­ley as a po­ten­tial ally in their fi­nal push to lim­it the NSA’s spy­ing powers—though with time run­ning out, they may soon be forced to plow ahead without him.

“Con­gress can no longer punt on an is­sue of ut­most im­port­ance to Amer­ic­ans’ pri­vacy rights,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Demo­crat on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and a key ar­chi­tect of the Free­dom Act, said in a state­ment. “This is an op­por­tun­ity for Con­gress to end bulk col­lec­tion un­der Sec­tion 215 once and for all, and I will con­tin­ue to work with a broad bi­par­tis­an and bicam­er­al co­ali­tion to ac­com­plish that goal.”

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