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New Push for NSA Reform Bill Follows Terrorist Attacks in Canada

After twin terror attacks in Canada, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) plans to renew a push to pass his broad intelligence review act that many lawmakers believe is necessary to collect intelligence to keep the country safe from terrorism.  Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act passed the House earlier this year. However, it’s been stalled in the Senate ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images News
Win McNamee/Getty Images News

After twin terror attacks in Canada, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) plans to renew a push to pass his broad intelligence review act that many lawmakers believe is necessary to collect intelligence to keep the country safe from terrorism. 

Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act passed the House earlier this year. However, it's been stalled in the Senate by lawmakers who believe the bill strips too many of the NSA's surveillance powers.

Now, with Canada reconsidering how it collects intelligence, a source close to the veteran congressman said he will lobby colleagues to sign off on the measure because it contains provisions that would allow the NSA to continue certain kinds of espionage authorized by the Patriot Act. A section of the Patriot Act provides the legal pretext for bulk collection of phone records. It also lowers the standard for the FBI's probable cause, allowing the bureau to collect "any tangible thing" in a terrorism investigation. The provision is set to expire June 1.

After twin terror attacks in Canada, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) plans to renew a push to pass his broad intelligence review act that many lawmakers believe is necessary to collect intelligence to keep the country safe from terrorism. 

Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act passed the House earlier this year. However, it’s been stalled in the Senate by lawmakers who believe the bill strips too many of the NSA’s surveillance powers.

Now, with Canada reconsidering how it collects intelligence, a source close to the veteran congressman said he will lobby colleagues to sign off on the measure because it contains provisions that would allow the NSA to continue certain kinds of espionage authorized by the Patriot Act. A section of the Patriot Act provides the legal pretext for bulk collection of phone records. It also lowers the standard for the FBI’s probable cause, allowing the bureau to collect "any tangible thing" in a terrorism investigation. The provision is set to expire June 1.

"Something has to be done," the source said. "Absent significant reform, [the section] will not be reauthorized. The clock is ticking on that."

Sensenbrenner’s bill, and its Senate companion sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has powerful allies. Tech companies, the White House, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper back it. The American Civil Liberties Union also supports the bill, calling it real reform.

"USA Freedom Act takes a strong first step towards curbing these abuses, and restoring some measure of accountability to our government’s intelligence activities," Neema Singh Guliani, an ACLU legislative counsel, told Foreign Policy. "If passed, the act would protect the privacy of millions of Americans, begin to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, and provide the public and members of Congress more transparency about government surveillance activities." 

Others are less convinced. Last month, a coalition of libertarian and leftist organizations sent a letter to Congress arguing that the bill did not go far enough. 

"Our fundamental civil rights — the human rights we hold dear — are not adequately protected by either the Senate or House versions of the USA Freedom Act," the letter, dated Sept. 15, read. 

Momentum for reform is also a challenge. Revelations about NSA spying made public by Edward Snowden are less shocking than they once were and public outrage over surveillance has died down.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is the Republican lawmakers who oppose the legislation. They argue that it strips the NSA of too much surveillance authority and would leave the country vulnerable.

"If you want to take away the ability to monitor ISIS, then you eliminate the tools that are eliminated in the Leahy bill," Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Hill last month. "I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do that."

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