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Harry Reid Moves for Senate Vote on NSA Reform

The Senate majority leader is hoping to move the bulk data-collection bill before his party returns to the minority.

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013.
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Dustin Volz
Nov. 12, 2014, 12:42 p.m.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id on Wed­nes­day moved to ad­vance a bill that would ush­er in sweep­ing re­forms to the gov­ern­ment’s most con­tro­ver­sial do­mest­ic-spy­ing pro­gram, more than a year after Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks ex­posed it pub­licly.

Re­id filed for clo­ture on the meas­ure late Wed­nes­day, a sur­pris­ing move in­ten­ded to ad­dress the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s mass-sur­veil­lance prac­tices be­fore Re­pub­lic­ans take over the Sen­ate next year. To ad­vance fur­ther, the le­gis­la­tion would need 60 votes to end de­bate, and then a ma­jor­ity vote to pass it through the cham­ber.

The bill, the USA Free­dom Act, would ef­fect­ively end the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion of metadata—the num­bers and time stamps of phone calls but not their ac­tu­al con­tent. Phone com­pan­ies such as Ve­r­i­zon would in­stead re­tain those re­cords, which in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could ob­tain only after be­ing gran­ted ap­prov­al from the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court. The bill would also ush­er in a host of ad­di­tion­al pri­vacy and trans­par­ency meas­ures, in­clud­ing a more pre­cise defin­i­tion of what can be con­sidered a sur­veil­lance tar­get.

The meas­ure is sponsored by Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Patrick Leahy, and has earned co­spon­sors ran­ging from Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ted Cruz to lib­er­al Sens. Ed­ward Mar­key and Chuck Schu­mer. It also boasts sup­port from a wide ar­ray of tech com­pan­ies, pri­vacy and civil-liber­ties groups, the White House, and seni­or mem­bers of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity.

The bill is a re­worked ver­sion of a sim­il­ar bill that passed the House in May, though that ver­sion was ac­cused by pri­vacy ad­voc­ates and the tech in­dustry of be­ing “watered down” dur­ing 11th-hour ne­go­ti­ations.

Leahy spent months work­ing to build con­sensus around his bill, and he nearly achieved it be­fore de­b­ut­ing the meas­ure in late Ju­ly. It still faces op­pos­i­tion from some de­fense hawks, in­clud­ing Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein. And two of the loudest crit­ics of NSA spy­ing, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Ud­all, have cri­ti­cized the meas­ure for not go­ing far enough. The two Demo­crats said they wanted to strengthen the bill to re­quire war­rants for “back­door” searches of Amer­ic­ans’ In­ter­net data that can be in­cid­ent­ally col­lec­ted dur­ing for­eign-sur­veil­lance hauls.

NSA crit­ics have been wait­ing the en­tire year to see Con­gress come to an agree­ment on how to cur­tail the gov­ern­ment’s mass-sur­veil­lance activ­it­ies. In Janu­ary, Pres­id­ent Obama pledged in a ma­jor policy speech to re­form the NSA, but said he could only do so when Con­gress sent him a bill that closely matched his re­com­men­ded changes.

Leahy has in­sisted for weeks that the Sen­ate take up his bill early in the lame duck. “The Amer­ic­an people are won­der­ing wheth­er Con­gress can get any­thing done,” Leahy said Wed­nes­day night, after Re­id filed for clo­ture. “The an­swer is yes. Con­gress can and should take up and pass the bi­par­tis­an USA Free­dom Act, without delay.”

Re­id’s fil­ing was not ex­pec­ted by many sur­veil­lance crit­ics, who had thought the lame-duck ses­sion was too packed with oth­er le­gis­lat­ive agen­das to leave any room for NSA re­form. But grow­ing un­cer­tainty about where the is­sue ranked for Re­pub­lic­ans may have forced Re­id’s hand.

Fur­ther com­plic­at­ing ne­go­ti­ations is the June 2015 sun­set of the post-9/11 Pat­ri­ot Act, the law that grants the gov­ern­ment much of its leg­al au­thor­ity for do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance. It is widely ex­pec­ted that Con­gress would not reau­thor­ize the Pat­ri­ot Act in its cur­rent form.

“That sun­set could very eas­ily touch off an ugly in­tra-party battle among both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans,” said Har­ley Gei­ger, seni­or coun­sel at the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy & Trans­par­ency, which sup­ports NSA re­form. “Every­one ex­pec­ted it to be ugly.”

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