House Committee Unanimously Passes Bill to Reform NSA Spying

On Wednesday, May 7, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the “USA Freedom Act,” written by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). The bill has received broad support from privacy and civil liberties groups. Sensenbrenner says he wants to make it clear that Congress does not support current NSA spying and data collection programs — though Congress has not shown much unity on the subject.

As previously reported on IVN, the USA Freedom Act was introduced in October 2013, months after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to the press about data collection and surveillance programs conducted by the intelligence agency on American citizens. Nearly a year after the Snowden leaks, calls for reform have only increased and though lawmakers have been divided on the issue, this may be an opportunity organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have hoped for.

“This is a historic turn of events in our government’s approach to counterterrorism policies,” the ACLU stated in a press release.

“This is the first bill to rein in government spying and bulk collection of our most private phone and digital information. This legislation will help keep Americans safe but will also provide greater privacy and transparency in our surveillance programs. The committee’s actions are a step towards bringing the government’s surveillance regime in line with the Constitution, even as more reforms are needed. Today’s milestone vote is a direct result of the important disclosures made by Edward Snowden.”

The organization acknowledged that there was still room for improvement, but the bill is a step in the right direction.

In fact, limitations on bulk data collection were scaled back some in an effort to win over skeptical lawmakers, including committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Under the revised bill, the government would still be able to collect phone data on Americans, pending a judge’s order based on “reasonable articulable suspicion.” The NSA would also still be allowed to collect call records two “hops” of separation from the suspect in question.

The bill also faces serious opposition in the House Intelligence Committee, where a rival bill has been introduced by committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (R-Md.) that would essentially do the opposite of what the USA Freedom Act intends to do. The Intelligence Committee is scheduled to mark up the “FISA Transparency and Modernization Act” on Thursday, a bill that would not require the NSA to get a court order every time it wants to collect records on a phone number.

The Intelligence Committee is also expected to mark up the USA Freedom Act as Rogers hopes to merge the two bills instead of rallying for more votes for his own. According to The Hill, Rogers “suggested he could be open to the Judiciary Committee’s plan, as long as there were provisions to allow for quick searches in the case of an emergency.”

The White House has not come out in support of either bill even though President Obama has publicly stated his support for NSA reform. It is also unclear where House Speaker John Boehner stands on the issue. So if efforts at compromise go nowhere, it may end up being a matter of which bill gets to the House floor first.

Photo Credit: AP Photo / Manuel Balce Ceneta