In Sharp Turn, NSA Defenders Pass Bill to End Mass Surveillance

By voice vote, the House Intelligence Committee approved a version of the USA Freedom Act that cleared the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 30: House Energy and Commerce Committee member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the troubled launch of the website October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. The federal healthcare insurance exchange site has been plagued by problems since its launch on October 1.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 8, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

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.

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