On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the most comprehensive reform legislation of U.S. intelligence activities in a decade after a series of last-minute concessions by privacy advocates and civil libertarians.
The USA Freedom Act, which passed in a 303-121 vote, limits the National Security Agency’s ability to collect the communications data of Americans en masse. It also adds transparency and oversight safeguards to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body that oversees the NSA’s surveillance activities. But many early backers of the bill warned that key privacy safeguards had been gutted and urged the Senate to push hard for those reforms in their corresponding bill.
"While this is not a perfect bill, the USA Freedom Act is an important step in the right direction," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the author of the bill, in a joint statement with other members of the House Judiciary Committee. "The days of the NSA indiscriminately vacuuming more data than it can store will end with the USA Freedom Act," added Sensenbrenner.
But some early backers of the bill in Congress and the civil liberties community questioned how the NSA in practice might interpret the law, and they withdrew their support for the bill.
"The bill was so weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations over the last week that the government still can order — without probable cause — a telephone company to turn over all call records for ‘area code 616’ or for ‘phone calls made east of the Mississippi,’" said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a backer of the original bill. "This morning’s bill maintains and codifies a large-scale, unconstitutional domestic spying program."
Privacy advocates complain that the revised bill uses ambiguous language to describe the types of requests the government can make to phone companies and the "selection terms," which traditionally are discrete items like a name or phone number, that the government can use to search huge databases of records.
"While the previous bill would have required any request for records to be tied to a clearly defined set of ‘specific selection terms,’ the bill that just passed leaves the definition of ‘specific selection terms’ open," said Elizabeth Goitein, a privacy rights advocate at the Brennan Center for Justice, in a statement. "This could allow for an overly broad and creative interpretation, which is something we’ve certainly seen from the executive branch and the FISA Court before," Goitein said, referring to the surveillance court.
Those voting no on the bill included 51 Republicans and 70 Democrats in a vote that did not fall along predictable party lines. Supporters of the bill emphasize that the program effectively ends the NSA’s bulk collection program. The bill prohibits the agency from sucking up millions of Americans’ phone records. Instead, that information stays with phone companies, which will search their databases at the government’s request.
The bill now moves to the Senate where Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he’ll take it up in the coming months.