House Prepares Vote on ‘Watered-Down’ NSA Reform Bill As Privacy Groups Drop Support

Ahead of a Thursday vote on the House floor, groups that once embraced the USA Freedom Act are now running from it.

Activists protest the surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA outside the Justice Department where President Barack Obama gave a major speech on reforming the NSA January 17, 2014.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 20, 2014, 12:38 p.m.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates are quickly pulling their sup­port from a newly amended bill in­ten­ded to lim­it the gov­ern­ment’s mass col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords.

A new ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act was re­leased Tues­day, the cul­min­a­tion of more than a week of in­tense back­door ne­go­ti­ations among House lead­er­ship, the White House, and the in­tel­li­gence com­munity.

The House will vote on the meas­ure on Thursday, a spokes­man for Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor said. But back­ers of gov­ern­ment-sur­veil­lance re­form wasted no time con­demning the changes.

“House lead­ers should have al­lowed a vote on the com­prom­ise ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act that was already agreed to, rather than un­der­min­ing their own mem­bers and cav­ing in to the in­tel­li­gence com­munity’s de­mands,” said Kev­in Bank­ston, the policy dir­ect­or of the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion’s Open Tech­no­logy In­sti­tute, in a state­ment. “We can­not in good con­science sup­port this weakened ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act, where key re­forms — es­pe­cially those in­ten­ded to end bulk col­lec­tion and in­crease trans­par­ency — have been sub­stan­tially watered down.”

Har­ley Gei­ger, a seni­or coun­sel at the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy & Tech­no­logy, said his group was also with­draw­ing its sup­port for the bill due to its loose defin­i­tion of a “spe­cif­ic se­lec­tion term,” which provides a basis for how nar­rowly in­tel­li­gence agen­cies would be re­quired to define se­lec­ted tar­gets when con­duct­ing a search of phone re­cords.

The new lan­guage “might lim­it na­tion­wide sur­veil­lance, but does not clearly lim­it this au­thor­ity for area codes or cit­ies,” Gei­ger said. “It would provide for an un­ac­cept­able level of sur­veil­lance in a bill that is sup­posed to re­form broad gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance.”

Oth­er back­ers of sur­veil­lance re­form took to Twit­ter to ex­press sim­il­ar frus­tra­tion. The flurry of with­draw­als “mir­ror law­makers’ grow­ing con­cerns” about the bill, a spokes­man for Rep. Zoe Lof­gren, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, said.

The com­prom­ise fur­ther moves the goal­posts on cer­tain pri­vacy and trans­par­ency meas­ures to­ward what na­tion­al se­cur­ity hawks wanted, even after they scored sev­er­al con­ces­sions earli­er this month when an amended bill passed out of the House Ju­di­ciary and In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees.

The bill, au­thored by Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, still would not al­low bulk, lim­it­less col­lec­tion of all phone metadata — the num­bers and time stamps of a call but not its con­tents — but its defin­i­tion of when gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are al­lowed to search those re­cords has been widened from earli­er agreed-upon lan­guage, ad­voc­ates say. In ad­di­tion, a trans­par­ency pro­vi­sion that spe­cifies how much tech com­pan­ies can dis­close about the gov­ern­ment’s re­quests of user data falls short of what many had hoped. 

The amended Free­dom Act, which was also filed by Sensen­bren­ner, is slated for con­sid­er­a­tion in the Rules Com­mit­tee on Tues­day af­ter­noon. Sources on and off Cap­it­ol Hill said they were skep­tic­al the vote would al­low an open-amend­ment de­bate.

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