House Takes Major Step to End NSA Mass Surveillance

The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center The National Security Agency's Utah Data Center Rick Bowmer/AP File Photo

A House committee on Wednesday passed a bill that seeks to effectively end one of the National Security Agency's most controversial spy programs.

With unanimous support, the House Judiciary Committee approved 32-0 an amended version of the USA Freedom Act, which would limit the government's ability to collect bulk metadata of Americans' phone records.

Among its several reform provisions, the Freedom Act would move the storage of phone metadata—the numbers and call durations but not the contents of a call—out of the government and into the hands of the phone companies. The bill, authored by Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, only allows data collection for counterterrorism purposes, and it reduces from three to two the number of "hops," or degrees of separation, away from a target the NSA can jump when analyzing communications.

It also would require the NSA to earn approval to search a phone number from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court except in emergency cases. A competing bill from Reps. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Intelligence Committee respectively, would allow the NSA to search a number before judicial review.

The USA Freedom Act has long been championed by privacy and civil-liberty advocates, who viewed it as the best option to curtail the NSA's mass-surveillance programs, the classified details of which were publicly disclosed by Edward Snowden last June.

But the amended version of the bill released this week drew some criticism from privacy hard-liners, who said it had lost some of the protections granted in the original.

Several lawmakers acknowledged those criticisms during debate. The amended bill "is a less-than-perfect compromise, [but] it makes important substantive changes that will work to restore confidence in the intelligence community," said Rep. John Conyers, the Judiciary panel's top Democrat.

But privacy groups and tech companies did score some victories during the vote.

The committee passed a data-request transparency amendment introduced by Rep. Suzan DelBene that had been heavily pushed by tech companies. It would codify an agreement those companies have with the Justice Department that gives them more flexibility in how they notify consumers of the kinds and amount of user data they turn over to the government upon request.

Also, an amendment by Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert that would have added clarification to the bill's definition of "clandestine intelligence activities" to include "activities by foreign individuals, foreign entities or foreign governments" failed after initially passing.

The measure initially went down during a voice vote, but during a follow-up roll-call vote, several lawmakers, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, switched their vote, allowing the amendment to pass 14-11. After reconvening from a break, however, Goodlatte asked the committee to reconsider the amendment, and it was voted down again by voice vote. Gohmert was not in the room during the final vote.

Goodlatte defended the maneuver because there was "confusion" about what Gohmert's amendment did.

"One of the concerns was an amendment that moves the agreement, the very strong bipartisan agreement that was made, one direction or the other, could upset that ability to get a very strong vote out of the committee and upset the ability to get this bill [through] the House," Goodlatte said after the vote.

Other privacy amendments pushed by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren failed, drawing opposition from Goodlatte, Sensenbrenner, and others who said they sympathized with the issue but worried tacking anything on could harm the bill's chances of getting a vote on the House floor.

"I fear this would blow up the fast track to passage," Sensenbrenner said before the vote on one amendment that would have tightened the standard for data searches from "reasonable, articulable suspicion" to "probable cause."

In January, President Obama announced his administration would reform how the NSA collects and stores telephone data, but said he had to wait for Congress to send him legislation that resembled his requests. The original Freedom Act was seen as too sweeping compared with what Obama wanted, but the amended version aligns more closely with what the administration is seeking.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee will hold a closed-door vote on its NSA reform bill, which reform advocates generally say does not go as far as the Freedom Act to protect privacy. The Intelligence Committee has additionally scheduled a vote of its own on the Freedom Act. A committee aide said the panel has the right to amend it as they see fit if it has issues with the version passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

A companion version of the original Freedom Act exists in the Senate. That measure is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

While commending the House Judiciary's vote, Leahy noted in a statement he has reservations about the bill because it did not include "important reforms related to national security letters, a strong special advocate at the FISA Court, and greater transparency." He added that his committee will consider the Freedom Act this summer.

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