The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Surveillance Hawks and Privacy Advocates Agree: House NSA Bill is a Flop

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and privacy advocates both agree the NSA reform bill that just passed the House is a dud.

Win McNamee
Win McNamee

The House just passed a White House-backed National Security Agency reform bill Wednesday, but it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where lawmakers say the legislation would make America less safe, and an key electronic privacy group is pulling its long-time support for the proposal.

The issue for both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Electronic Freedom Foundation is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision that allows for the bulk collection of American phone records by the NSA. A federal court ruled the program illegal last week, but left the door open for Congress to allow it with new legislation. The House bill removes Section 215, while the legislation being considered by the Senate contains it.

McConnell’s problem with the House version of the disingenuously-named USA Freedom Act is that it doesn’t give the government the authority to continue mass collection of American data. He maintains eliminating the program would make the United States less safe, despite little evidence that the data collected by the government has stopped terror attacks.

Wednesday’s House vote is the latest episode in a two-year struggle to pass intelligence reform in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s broad surveillance operations. Tech companies, Obama, civil liberty groups, and many lawmakers support reform efforts, but getting a bill Congress and the White House can agree on has so far proven elusive. The House vote approving the measure by an overwhelming 338 to 88 margin also comes as intelligence and defense officials debate the ground rules of cyberwar.

Still, the bill could die a quick death in the Senate, where a similar measure failed to garner enough support to even make it to the floor for a vote. McConnell, along with other Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), are promising to fight the bill once it arrives in the upper chamber.

The EFF, a group that has been advocating for electronic privacy since 1990, supported the bill as recently as last week. Now, though, it’s singing a different tune, saying the court ruling finding the surveillance program illegal changed their position. In a blog post Monday, EFF’s civil liberty director, David Greene, and its legislative analyst, Mark Jaycox, argued the ruling should compel Congress to revert to a 2013 version that contained stronger provisions outlawing mass surveillance.

Other privacy advocates are also opposed to the bill. Daniel Schuman, policy director of the progressive group Demand Progress, said the legislation does not address the controversial Section 702 provision allowing the government to collect email and internet traffic information

“Taking a bite of a poisoned apple is not going to address the underlying issues,” he said. “You don’t ask for the bare minimum.”

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images