More than 50 civil-liberties and Internet-freedom groups sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday strongly rejecting a bill to reform the National Security Agency’s data-collection programs because it would “entrench some of the worst forms of NSA surveillance.”
The coalition is targeting the FISA Improvements Act, a measure championed by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has been among the NSA’s most vocal defenders since revelations about the agency’s Internet and phone metadata collection began surfacing in June. Her bill enumerates proper use for the bulk-collection programs, requires the NSA to provide annual reports on the use of its telephone metadata database, and makes it a criminal penalty to access data procured via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without authorization.
Criticism of Feinstein’s bill is nothing new, but the letter follows a federal judge’s opinion released earlier this week that characterized NSA surveillance as likely unconstitutional and “almost Orwellian.” In response, Feinstein conceded Tuesday that the Supreme Court, not Congress, should decide the constitutionality of the agency’s data collection.
Feinstein’s bill “does not offer real reform to stop the NSA’s mass collection of our communications and communications records,” reads the letter, whose signatories include Reddit, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch. The bill instead “seeks to entrench some of the worst forms of NSA surveillance into U.S. law and to extend the NSA surveillance programs in unprecedented ways.”
Feinstein appears unlikely to stop pushing her legislation, however, saying in a statement Tuesday that she believes the NSA’s call-records program “can benefit from additional transparency and privacy protections — including additional public reporting and added court review provisions which were recently adopted by the Senate Intelligence Committee in the bipartisan FISA Improvements Act.”
But Feinstein’s public deference to the Supreme Court, combined with a growing sense among tech groups large and small that her bill merely codifies the NSA’s existing authority, indicates that any momentum for the bill is, for now, halted.
“The recent federal judge’s ruling that the National Security Agency’s phone-surveillance program is likely unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment is the latest confirmation that mass surveillance is incompatible with a democratic society,” said Joanna Parke, managing director of ThoughtWorks, which also signed the letter.
The letter does not expressly support alternative legislation proposed to rein in the NSA, but several of the signatories have previously expressed support for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s Freedom Act, which had 115 cosponsors as of Tuesday. Sensenbrenner’s bill and a mirror one in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would restrict the collection of metadata, create a special advocate to oversee the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and demand the NSA increase its transparency and accountability.