House moves to curb government surveillance of phone, Internet records

Nearly two years after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents on a massive government surveillance program, bipartisan support for reform is taking shape on Capitol Hill.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013. The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed the latest version of a bill known as the USA Freedom Act by a bipartisan vote of 25 to 2. The measure seeks to codify President Obama's proposal to end the NSA's collection of domestic calling records.

In a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed a measure to overhaul the controversial USA Patriot Act to curb widespread government surveillance.

The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, aims to rein in the secret collection and surveillance of metadata that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, now a fugitive, revealed in 2013, sparking an intense national debate. 

With such strong support in committee, where it passed with a 25-to-2 vote, the bill is almost certain to pass the House. Meanwhile, similar legislation in the Senate is gaining support from both sides of the aisle.

This new wave of anti-surveillance sentiment may signal a shift away from the prioritization of national security over civil liberties.

“The bill ends bulk collection, it ends secret law,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, a coauthor of the bill and the original author of the Patriot Act, told The Hill. “It increases the transparency of our intelligence community and it does all this without compromising national security.”

If the bill were ultimately approved, the bulk collection of metadata, including a program tracking all Americans' phone records, would be prohibited. Instead, data stored by phone companies could be accessed by intelligence agencies only if they obtain the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill would also mandate the creation of a panel of experts who would advise the court on civil liberties and technology issues. It would also ensure that many of the court's documents were declassified.

The USA Freedom Act has received widespread support from diverse groups such as human rights advocates and lawmakers concerned with transparency issues. Moreover, it has succeeded in uniting some unlikely political bedfellows, such as House Speaker John Boehner, the White House, and supporters of the tea party movement.

“The United States Congress should swiftly pass the USA Freedom Act to thwart bulk data collection and improve transparency and oversight of surveillance,” the nonprofit Human Rights Watch announced Thursday.

However, some civil liberties advocates say that the provisions in the legislation are insufficient.

“Unfortunately, the USA Freedom Act concedes far too much. It doesn't touch the Drug Enforcement [Administration's] surveillance programs. The transparency requirements are lax, so the government won't have to say how many people it snooped on. It expands surveillance of foreign nationals coming in and out of the country, and increases penalties for people caught providing 'material support' to terrorists,” wrote Kate Knibbs for Gizmodo.

And the Center for Democracy and Technology, an online civil liberties nonprofit, pointed out that the bill does not limit the retention of data collected about people who turn out not to have any connection to a legitimate suspect.

Three sections of the Patriot Act are up for reauthorization on June 1 – the first such opening for Congress to rework the bill since Mr. Snowden’s disclosures prompted a public backlash and changed the way Americans think about privacy issues. This change in public perception and bipartisan support for reform make it likely that the act’s provisions will be modified.

Currently, it appears that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is one of a handful of leaders who want to keep the act unaltered. Mr. McConnell has already introduced legislation that would renew the law without changes in the three parts of the Patriot Act that are set to expire. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have announced their opposition to McConnell’s bill and have said that lawmakers should let the Patriot Act provisions lapse on June 1, instead.

“I don’t think he’s listening to America,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah and a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, told The New York Times, referring to McConnell. “The seminal question is how much liberty are we going to give up for security?"

Meanwhile, lawmakers have expressed a belief that a strong bipartisan vote in the House will put pressure on the Senate to approve the legislation.

A bipartisan House vote “will send a strong message to the Senate that in the House, both sides of the aisle want reforms,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told the Times.

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