House passes bill to overhaul NSA data collection

Print
Email
|

by Susan Davis, USA TODAY

khou.com

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 3:50 PM

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House sent a bipartisan message Thursday, voting to end the practice of bulk collection of phone records conducted by the National Security Agency. The surveillance of such "metadata" was revealed last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, prompting public disapproval and congressional anger from lawmakers who said the intelligence agency was not forthcoming with Congress about the scope of their surveillance efforts.

The USA FREEDOM Act, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., passed 303-121 with 179 Republicans and 124 Democrats in support. Of the 121 lawmakers opposed, 51 were Republicans and 70 were Democrats. Sensenbrenner played an instrumental role in shaping the federal government's post-9/11 national security infrastructure.

The legislation instructs telephone companies to continue to hold records for 18 months but would require a judicial order for the NSA to get access to phone records believed to be tied to terrorist plots. The legislation mirrors a proposal outlined by President Obama in January. The bill now heads to the Senate, where Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced companion legislation.

Civil liberties advocates said the original bill was significantly weakened, citing a dropped provision that would have created a position for an independent public advocate on the secretive court that oversees the NSA. The House-passed bill also excluded original provisions that would have required annual public reports from the federal government on the number of individuals who had been targeted by domestic surveillance, and biannual reports on the number of court orders requested.

"We cannot expect this bill to protect privacy and civil liberties while the public and Congress continue to be in the dark about the policies in practice. Without transparency, there will be no way of knowing if the bulk collection of data has ended," said Danielle Brian with the Project on Government Oversight.

Leahy voiced similar concerns about the dropped provisions in a statement. He said he will work to put the protections back in when his committee takes up the bill this summer. The legislation is likely the only congressional action in response to the Snowden leaks.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was a co-sponsor of the original bill but voted against it Thursday. "This is not a choice between civil liberties and national security. We still have yet to hear of a single example of how national security has been strengthened by allowing bulk data collection," she said. Gabbard, a military veteran, said the weakened legislation still allows the government to obtain innocent Americans' phone data and conduct broad collection sweeps.

"Instead of targeting specific individuals, the bill would allow the government to collect data with very broad search terms like an entire area code, an e-mail with a keyword or a whole state or region of the country," she said. "That kind of data collection is not 'specific' at all; it is the opposite of specific, leaving the door open for continued overreach and abuse."

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., lauded the bill as a balance between combating terrorism and protecting civil liberties. The legislation includes prohibitions against bulk e-mail collection, as well as the collection of firearms purchases and financial records. "The terrorist threat is real and ongoing and we must always be aware of the threats we face," he said.

However, a group of influential tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter withdrew their original support from the bill on Wednesday, citing weakened language that they said creates a loophole for the surveillance of personal Internet data. "While it makes important progress, we cannot support this bill as currently drafted and urge Congress to close this loophole to ensure meaningful reform," they said in a joint statement from the Reform Government Surveillance coalition.

Print
Email
|